Fight intensifies over West Coast coal exports to Asia

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Plans for a major West Coast coal export facility-- the subject of an intense fight over greenhouse gases and U.S. coal supplies to Asia--took a new turn when Millennium Bulk Terminals Inc. announced it was withdrawing its permit for the facility near Longview, Wash.

The company -- faced with intense public opposition when it was revealed that it was quietly talking of building a facility up to 14 times bigger than it had publicly admitted -- said it will submit a new permit application to allow full public discussion of all development alternatives.


‘To show our continued commitment as a good neighbor, we will do an Environmental Impact Statement to address concerns that have been raised about this project, and we will ensure that all parties continue to have a voice in the process going forward,’ Joe Cannon, CEO of Millennium, said in a statement.

He said the company will now do a full site capacity analysis to evaluate the effects of shipping a variety of commodities, including coal, aluminum and cement, ‘in various amounts.’

In a reflection of the massive market demand for bringing Montana and Wyoming coal to Asia, plans for a second major export facility got underway last month in northern Washington state, 17 miles south of the Canadian border, where a company called SSA Marine is proposing to build the largest shipping, stevedoring and warehousing facility on the West Coast of the U.S.

The proposed Gateway Pacific terminal near Bellingham, which began environmental reviews on Feb. 28, already has agreements to ship 24 million tons of coal a year to Asia.

Residents in both Washington communities have raised concerns about traffic congestion from delivery trains and pollution from coal dust. In Longview, opponents said they believed that Millennium withdrew its original, approved permit as a result of disclosures that it had misled officials in Washington state and Cowlitz County about its true intentions. While the company had applied for a shoreline permit to export about 5.7 million tons of mainly Montana coal a year, destined primarily for China, documents disclosed as part of a lawsuit against the project revealed that company officials had discussed intentions of coming back and gaining permission to export up to 80 million tons a year.

‘Millennium withdrawing their permit application after the true size of their proposal was revealed just goes to show how much they’d misrepresented their intentions,’ said Becky Kelley of the Washington Environmental Council.

‘Millennium was trying to hide the serious public health impacts and traffic congestion caused by thousands of dirty coal trains and a dusty terminal,’ said Brett VandenHeuvel of the group, Columbia Riverkeeper. ‘Millennium got caught being dishonest and was forced to withdraw their permit.’

Environmental organizations, represented by the group Earthjustice, had been on the eve of trial in a suit challenging the failure to measure the project’s likelihood of generating new climate-changing greenhouse gases, including those emitted when Montana coal is burned in China.

Jan Hasselman, Earthjustice attorney in Seattle, said it would have been difficult for the company to go to trial in the case with plaintiffs holding evidence that Millennium had apparently misled government authorities when it filed a certification stating it had no plans for future additional development at the site.

‘We found internal documents from the same time that showed that they were going to wait exactly two months, and go back for their new permit,’ Hasselman said.

The state of Washington had intervened in the case, backing demands for more study of greenhouse gases, at least those generated when coal is shipped all the way to the coast for export. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer made an unusual trip to Cowlitz County in January, urging commissioners to be mindful of jobs generated by coal development and the fact that Montana coal is burned not just in Asia, but in Washington.

Cannon could not be reached for comment. In its statement, Millennium did not directly address the issue of the court case disclosures, and did not say what size project it ultimately envisions.

Officials said the new permit application process will allow for detailed review of potential impacts for ‘the full array’ of bulk material products.

‘We remain sharply focused on creating jobs in Washington state and contributing to the economic recovery here in Cowlitz County,’ Cannon said in the statement. ‘We believe that re-starting the permit process is the most thorough and expeditious route for...making this a viable bulk materials port.’

The $500-million Gateway Pacific project would be located near BP’s refinery at Cherry Point in Washington’s Whatcom County. Coal giant Peabody Energy announced last month that it has signed an agreement to initially export up to 24 million metric tons of coal a year from the Powder River Basin to markets in Asia through the proposed terminal. The facility could also handle grain, potash, iron ore and calcined coke.

‘We’re opening the door to a new era of U.S. exports from the nation’s largest and most productive coal region to the world’s best market for coal,’ Peabody Energy chairman Gregory H. Boyce said in a statement.

-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

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