Washington State Breaks With U.S. to Analyze Coal Export Plans

Bloomberg BNA – In a decisive split with federal regulators, the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE) said it would conduct a detailed environmental analysis of cumulative and indirect impacts of a proposed coal export facility—including greenhouse gas emissions from combustion of U.S. coal in Asia.

In a Feb. 12 media briefing, Ecology officials laid out the scope of the state environmental impact study for Millennium Bulk Terminals, one of three proposed coal export facilities in the Northwest that cumulatively would more than match the total of 107 million tons of coal exported from the U.S. in 2011. The controversial proposals have sparked intense opposition from grassroots groups, tribes and environmental organizations; Ecology received 215,000 comments in the Millennium scoping process alone.

Ecology officials had planned to conduct a joint environmental impact statement EIS) with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But the two agencies parted ways last year, when it became clear that there were stark differences between corps plans to evaluate the projects based on its narrow reading of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and how Ecology plans to proceed, based on its broad reading of the State Environmental Policy Act.

The corps—which received extensive guidance from the White House Council on Environmental Quality—has said it will not consider numerous cumulative and indirect effects such as the combustion of U.S. coal abroad. Ecology's Feb. 12 announcement enumerates a wide range of effects it will analyze that the corps will not include, including the cumulative impacts of Millennium together with the two other proposed terminals.

Analysis From Coal Mines to Port

Millennium is a project of Ambre Energy Ltd. with a 62 percent interest, and Arch Coal Inc. with a 38 percent interest. The terminal at the Port of Longview, Wash., about 63 miles from the river's mouth, would be capable of shipping as much as 48.5 million tons of coal annually. Upriver about 270 miles is another Ambre project—the proposed Morrow Pacific project that would ship as much as 8.8 million tons of coal annually from the Coyote Island Terminal. It received three critical permits Feb. 11 from Oregon regulators.

About 200 miles to the north near the Canadian border is the site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would export up to 53 million tons of coal annually. SSA Marine, which calls human health impacts would be most detailed around the Millennium site, but also include the entire rail route within the state.

State Will Look Beyond its Boundaries

Elaine Placido, director of building and planning for Cowlitz County, Wash., which encompasses the Millennium site, said: “There may be comparable significant adverse environmental impacts outside of the state boundaries from shipping and rail. A more general discussion of out-of-state impacts will also be included,” she said.

This reflects the ecology department's regulatory approach for the coal-export proposals of analyzing broad, cumulative and indirect effects. It contrasts sharply with the corps, which has said it would focus on direct effects at terminal sites.

The more site-specific approach of the corps was guided through a series of meetings convened by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. According to an e-mail obtained by Bloomberg BNA through the Freedom of Information Act, a June 7, 2012, CEQ meeting was called “to discuss the NEPA roles and responsibilities of each agency as itself the largest U.S. terminal and stevedoring company, is behind the proposal to build Gateway. The Smith-Hemingway family owns a 51 percent interest in parent company Carrix Inc.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s BNSF Railway Co. would haul coal to both terminals primarily from the federally owned coal fields in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. Numerous communities along the route from the mines to the ports have expressed concerns about a variety of impacts from the 1.5-mile-long trains including coal dust, noise and traffic problems from at-grade crossings.

Ecology's Southwest Washington Region Director Sally Toteff said the state would analyze the cumulative impacts of all the rail transport “from the mine site to the facility.” Analysis of regards the planned coal mining and export development in the Pacific Northwest.”

Toteff said officials view the increase of 140 ship transits a month on the Columbia River as “a potentially significant adverse impact.” The EIS “will provide a detailed assessment of cargo-ship impacts in the Columbia River such as from air pollution or possible spills, along with a more general discussion of impacts in open ocean waters.”

“The environmental impact study will contain an evaluation of impacts associated with the project from greenhouse gas emissions including those from terminal construction, terminal operation, rail and vessel traffic, and also the end-use coal combustion,” Toteff said. “The EIS will evaluate what are the amounts of greenhouse gases attributable to the project.”

Attributing Climate Change to Coal

Toteff cited regulatory authority under SEPA to look at impacts outside Washington and quoted from the Washington Administrative Code: “In assessing the significance of an impact, a lead agency shall not limit its consideration of a proposal's impact only to those aspects within its jurisdiction including local or state boundaries

Ecology planner Diane Butorac gave the justification for why the agency will evaluate greenhouse gas emissions in Asia from the burning of U.S. coal. “We know that climate change has affected things like snowpack, ocean acidification and wildfire season here in Washington. That's why we are studying this question; to find the answers to what are the attributable impacts from combustion of coal.”

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