The Politics Blog

State EIS on Cherry Point coal-exports facility to consider ‘end use’ coal burning in China as well as regional rail impacts

The OlympianJuly 31, 2013 

Train hauling coal for British Columbia heads out from Seattle's waterfront in this May 29, 2012, file photo


An environmental review of a proposed coal-export facility at Cherry Point will take into account pollutants emitted by the facility, rail traffic carrying coal to the facility, and also the impact on greenhouse gases from coal burning in China, India and other export destinations.  The scope of environmental review was announced Wednesday by the Department of Ecology, Whatcom County and Army Corps of Engineers, which are co-leading the environmental review.

The broad look at “end use” impacts of off-shore coal burning is unprecedented for Ecology, which alone is insisting on that review under its administering of the State Environmental Policy Act. Gov. Jay Inslee was briefed on the agency’s plans, an Ecology spokesman told reporters during a telephone press conference Wednesday at which officials explained the scoping decisions.

Environmentalists critical of the Gateway Pacific Terminal’s deep-water wharf project say they are not aware of any other such project around the country getting such off-site scrutiny. But they say two coal-export proposals in Washington – at Cherry Point and Longview – and the extensive rail traffic needed to bring coal from Wyoming for export are deserving of high level reviews.

Muffy Walker, the Army Corps of Engineers’ regulatory branch chief, told reporters during the telephone press conference that overseas burning of coal and assessment of regional rail impacts were outside the purview of the National Environmental Policy Act that is guiding the Corps’ environmental review of the project. The Corps’ look will be focused more on the facility’s emissions and localized impacts at the three-berth wharf and at BNSF rail’s Custer Spur Line serving the facility.

The announcement by the government agencies – identified as the co-leads for the national and state environmental reviews – drew quick criticism from those who want to ship coal by rail through Washington to port facilities for export to Asia. The Gateway Pacific project is backed by coal and rail interests, and it is one of three major export projects on the table in Longview and Oregon.

“Today’s announcement represents an unprecedented treatment of rail and exports in Washington state and could have far-reaching repercussions that should concern anyone who cares about trade,” said Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, an industry-dominated group. “This decision has the potential to alter the Northwest’s long and historic commitment to expanding trade, which today supports 4 in every 10 jobs in Washington state.”

A news release from the alliance included statements from the National Association of Manufacturers, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, Association of Washington Business, the United Transportation Union’s Washington State Legislative Board and the Washington Farm Bureau.

The scoping announcement on the EIS drew praise from environmental groups that also favor a comprehensive look at rail traffic involving coal shipments through Washington communities.

“This scope is a reflection of Northwest values – the depth and breadth of the scope is absolutely on target and appropriate given the impacts this project would have on our way of life,” said Cesia Kearns, campaign director for the Power Past Coal campaign, in a news release issued by the Washington Environmental Council.

Power Past Coal is a coalition that lists more than 100 “businesses, health experts, community organizations and environmental and faith groups” in its membership.

“I applaud Washington’s leadership for using the full scope of their authority to examine this project carefully and urge Oregon to do the same. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel by far and we need fully evaluate what coal export would cost Northwest communities,” Kearns’ statement added.

Josh Baldi, a regional administrator for Ecology who had served as the WEC lobbyist in Olympia before going to DOE, said the EIS process could take two years. He indicated the scoping decision cannot be appealed.

DOE’s web site on the project's environmental review includes the scoping decision and a page answering frequently asked questions.

The Army Corps’ web site has this document outlining its decision and plans.

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