In the latest blow to what would be the largest coal terminal in North America, the Washington State Department of Ecology on Tuesday denied a needed water quality permit to Millennium Bulk Terminals.
Environmental groups and Ecology viewed the decision as essentially killing the project, which is one of the only major fossil fuel export operations still proposed for the state. However, the company has 30 days to appeal the decision.
The Longview terminal, more than five years into the permitting process, would ship up to 44 million metric tons of coal to Asia each year.
That coal would pass through Spokane on its way from Wyoming to the port in Western Washington, with eight loaded trains headed west and eight empty trains returning to the Powder River Basin every day.
The permit that Ecology denied Tuesday was needed under the federal Clean Water Act before the company could dredge more than 40 acres of the Columbia riverbed, fill 24 acres of wetland, and install a new trestle and docks.
In a statement, Ecology said the permit was denied because the terminal “would have caused significant and unavoidable harm to nine environmental areas: air quality, vehicle traffic, vessel traffic, rail capacity, rail safety, noise pollution, social and community resources, cultural resources, and tribal resources.”
“After extensive study and deliberation, I am denying Millennium’s proposed coal export project,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a written statement. “There are simply too many unavoidable and negative environmental impacts for the project to move forward.”
Members of Power Past Coal, a coalition of environmental groups and concerned citizens that want to prevent further coal mining and export, applauded the decision.
“Today the State of Washington stood up for clean water. The state’s decision to protect the water on the Columbia also helps protect farm and ranch irrigators like me,” said Mark Fix, a Miles City, Montana, rancher and past Northern Plains Resource Council chair, in a written statement. “In southeastern Montana, coal seams are aquifers. Mining more coal for export would further disrupt our watersheds and lead to more salty water discharged into the rivers and streams we rely on in agriculture. If we don’t have water, we don’t have anything.”
Millennium issued this statement late Tuesday afternoon:
"Ecology appears to have intentionally disregarded decades of law defining the Clean Water Act to reject the water quality certification requested for Millennium’s project. Multiple recent decisions by the agency seem biased against the Longview community, and particularly blind to the need for employment opportunities in Cowlitz County.
Millennium will appeal the decision expecting a fairer and more consistent interpretation of the law.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement, prepared by experts selected and overseen by agency staff, confirmed the ability of Millennium’s project to meet Washington State’s strict water quality standards. Just over a year ago, Ecology approved a water quality decision for another Washington facility handling the same type and quantity of coal.
We remain confident in our judicial system, where the facts will be interpreted in an unbiased manner and this water quality certification will be granted.
William Chapman, President & CEO
Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview"
Among those who support the terminal is the Alliance for NW Jobs and Exports, a coalition of involved companies, labor groups, civic organizations and others. The Alliance most recently refuted the state's Environmental Impact Statement claims that increased diesel emissions from the terminal's train traffic would lead to an increased risk of cancer
, and lauded the project's potential to support Japan's energy needs
The project would create 230 direct and indirect jobs at first and 300 ongoing jobs at full buildout, with the potential to create 2,650 direct and indirect jobs during construction, according to a Millennium Bulk Terminals fact sheet on the project.
Also supportive is Keep Washington Competitive, another business and labor coalition supportive of exports, which denounced the decision in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
"This is not how you attract business to a state, let alone one that thrives on trade," said John Stuhlmiller, CEO of the Washington Farm Bureau, in KWC's written statement. "We have a regulatory process in place for a reason, and when the state not only changes the rules mid-stream, but completely abandons the process, that’s evidence the process was flawed from the outset, and that is a very troubling precedent for any future investors looking to do business in Washington state."
Environmental groups including the Power Past Coal coalition point to risks outlined in the environmental study by Ecology, including coal dust, as good reasons not to approve the permit.
"Ecology’s environmental review documented significant impacts that the project would have on water quality and habitat in the Columbia River, including: Coal dust discharge from 75 acres of uncovered coal piles and mile-and-a-half long coal trains. Significant accumulations of coal dust were found as far as a half-mile away from the Roberts Bank coal export terminal in British Columbia. A growing body of evidence suggests coal dust impacts the ecological function of salmon and other aquatic species," a Power Past Coal statement says, linking to a 2013 report by the Sightline Institute on coal contamination
. Sightline is an environmental think tank based in Seattle.
The Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which opposes the terminal as threatening the tribe's fishing rights and sacred resources, applauded the permit denial, which follows the denial of an aquatic lands lease by the state Department of Natural Resources.
"We call on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject the proposal in its upcoming Record of Decision," a statement from the tribe reads. "We urge Cowlitz County to pause the pending shoreline permitting process."
"We are looking forward," Cowlitz Chairman William Iyall said in a written statement. "We ask Cowlitz County and local businesses to come together with us to develop ethical, environmentally sensitive business opportunities that will create jobs and economic stability long after Millennium has moved on."
In the KWC statement, Courtney Wallace, regional spokeswoman for BNSF Railway said that the terminal had met milestones along the way and exceeded requirements.
"For the state to issue a denial based on arbitrary and unrelated findings beyond the scope of the state’s water quality permit review is deeply troubling. For BNSF, there is nothing more important than safely operating through the communities that we serve and in fact, we’re industry leaders in reducing derailments and improving rail safety for moving all commodities," Wallace says. "The simple fact is that this review has been politicized from the start but we’re hopeful clearer minds will prevail on appeal."
Millennium Bulk Terminals conceptual rendering