A project that would export 44 million tons of coal a year from Longview, Washington, would raise the cancer risk for people living near rail lines, create traffic jams with its mile-long coal trains and increase global greenhouse gas emissions by 2 million tons.
The Millennium coal export project would be among the largest coal terminals in North America, and it would inevitably impact the environment and the surrounding community in Southwest Washington, according to a new report from state and county regulators.
In their final environmental impact statement, released Friday, Cowlitz County and the Washington Department of Ecology conclude only some of those impacts can be offset through mitigation.
The $640 million export terminal would deliver coal from the Rocky Mountain region by rail. At full capacity, it would receive eight mile-long unit trains of coal each day – sending 16 trains in and out of the Longview area daily – and send out 70 ocean-going vessels a month. It would increase Columbia River shipping traffic by 1,680 ship transits a year.
The project is the last remaining proposal among six to transport coal by rail to the Northwest so it could be transferred onto Asia-bound ocean-going vessels.
In a voluminous report, Cowlitz County and Ecology detail how the development would affect 23 different aspects of the environment. That list includes air quality, water resources, fish and wildlife, transportation and climate change.
One of the key findings is that train traffic would increase toxic diesel particulate in the Longview area, which would increase the cancer risk for people who live along the rail line. Officials had no suggestions for how the company might mitigate for that impact.
Related: EarthFix Coal Scorecard
The slow-moving 1.3-mile-long coal trains could cause traffic jams at railroad crossings during rush hour, the report found, but those impacts could be mitigated through railroad improvements. While the terminal and its trains would release coal dust, environmental modeling found it would not exceed air quality standards for human health.
Transporting and burning the coal overseas is projected to increase global greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 million metric tons. Officials say those impacts can be mitigated, and they called on the company to develop a plan to offset all of those emissions.
While the report itself is not a decision on the project, it will be used by 10 different agencies as they consider more than 20 different permits developer Millennium Bulk Terminal needs to build the coal terminal.
Washington Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said she can't say whether the findings will result in permit denials – even though her agency will be in charge of several permitting decisions for the project.
She said her agency's 10,000-page report shows the export terminal "is a very large, very complex project" that would increase U.S. coal exports by 40 percent and increase vessel traffic on the Columbia by a third.
"We're talking about coal piles about eight stories tall filling an area of 50 football fields," she said. "It's a very large project. It's not a matter of a few new docks a couple of buildings."
Bellon said in response to public comments on the agency's draft environmental impact statement, the state studied the impacts of additional locomotive engines carrying coal trains through Longview's Highlands neighborhood. The state study found the increase in diesel exhaust from those locomotives would increase the cancer risk to people in that neighborhood by 10 percent.
Impacts from the project include filling wetlands, dredging the riverbed, injuring fish and polluting the air.
Only some of the impacts from the project can be mitigated, the report concludes. If the project is built as proposed, there will be unavoidable impacts to air quality, vehicle traffic, vessel traffic, rail capacity, rail safety, noise pollution, social and community resources, cultural and tribal resources.
It's unclear whether any of the unavoidable impacts identified in the report will prevent the company from getting the permits it needs to start construction.
"We spent the bulk of our time and effort really focusing on the potential impacts to the local community where impacts would be greatest," said Elaine Placido, Building and Planning director for Cowlitz County. "We received an unprecedented 267,000 comments, so it was clear to us that people are really interested in this project."
Millennium officials noted the completion of the report marks an important milestone for the project, which they say has been carefully designed to protect air and water quality, fish and wildlife, groundwater and people.
"Today we are celebrating the completion of another strong step forward," said Bill Chapman, president and CEO of Millennium Bulk Terminals. "This independent state study shows we can achieve our goals to bring more family-wage jobs to Longview while meeting the high standards for environmental protection in Cowlitz County and Washington state."
The company plans on starting construction next year and completing the project by 2024.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to release a separate environmental impact statement later this year.
The Northwest's other five coal-export terminal proposals targeted ports on Puget Sound, the Columbia River, and in coastal communities. They were either withdrawn or failed to win needed permits. All drew a mix of support from those who saw them as job creators and stiff opposition from tribes, environmental groups, and others who warned of negative impacts on the environment, the climate and quality of life.
Mariana Parks, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Alliance for Jobs and Exports, said in a statement the the requirement to mitigate the emissions from burning coal overseas are a "frightening example" of regulatory overreach.
"This use of a state regulatory policy to police the use of products outside of Washington state is simply unheard of," she said. "We don't penalize farmers for agricultural products used in foreign markets or aerospace manufacturers."
Parks said the state is only enforcing the end use of this product because it's coal, and that is "purely a political decision" that puts thousands of new jobs and millions in new tax revenue for Southwest Washington at risk.
Environmental groups that have been fighting the development for years argue that the findings legally obligate the state to deny key permits needed to build the project.
Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky with the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper said thousands of people who have spoken out against the project are counting on state regulators to listen.
"This environmental review validates many of their concerns about how coal export will harm our climate, health and Columbia River," she said. "Now, we look to state leaders to stand up to the coal industry and deny all permits for Millennium."
The Washington Department of Natural Resources has already denied a 58-acre sublease of state lands the company needs to build along the Columbia River, citing concerns about the company's financial condition after Arch Coal, one of the primary shareholders in Millennium Bulk Terminals, declared bankruptcy last year.
This story will be updated later today.
Millenium Bulk Terminals: Longview, Wash.
A $640 million terminal that would eventually export 44 million tons of coal at a private brownfield site near Longview, Wash. It was originally a joint venture of Australia's Ambre Energy and Arch Coal, the second-largest coal producer in the U.S.
Players: Alcoa, Lighthouse Resources (formerly Ambre Energy)
Full Capacity: To be reached by 2028
Export Plans: 44 million metric tons/year
Trains: 16 trains/day (8 full and 8 empty)
Train Cars: 960/day
What's Next: On April 28, 2017, Cowlitz County and the Washington Department of Ecology issued their final environmental impact statement on the project. Its findings include that it would raise the cancer risk for people living near rail lines, create traffic jams with its mile-long coal trains and increase global greenhouse gas emissions by 2 million tons.
On Jan. 3, 2017, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark announced his decision to deny a sublease request for the coal terminal.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its draft on Sept. 30,2016. The draft EIS was narrower in scope than that issued in the spring by Washington state. It was favorable to the proposal but cited traffic congestion, railroad noise, and impacts on wildlife and wetlands as impacts.
On April 29, 2016, the Washington Department of Ecology and Cowlitz County released a draft report environmental impact statement. It determined that coal dust, greenhouse gas emissions, noise and traffic congestion are among the environmental impacts from the proposed coal export terminal. In September 2013, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced split from what was to be a joint review process. It conducted a “separate but synchronized environmental review and public scoping process.”