The Politics Blog

Labor groups favor narrower review of Wash. coal export proposals

Staff writerSeptember 25, 2013 

May 2012 file photo of coal train passing through Seattle


Spokesmen for three national labor groups sounded off Wednesday against the state Department of Ecology’s plan to subject the Gateway Pacific coal-export proposal at Cherry Point to a more stringent environmental review than the Army Corps of Engineers plans. The Army Corpsannounced earlier this month it was doing a more site specific review after previously announcing in July it would work jointly with Ecology effort.

Ecology announced its decision in late July after getting about 125,000 comments from the public over a 121-day period. The agency plans to look at the cumulative impacts of rail traffic bringing coal by rail from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming to serve the export docks proposed by SSA Marine. In a move that appears to be a first nationally, Ecology also is planning to consider the greenhouse gas effects of burning the coal in China, India and other potential markets.

Labor prefers the Army Corps’ approach, which is more in line with past reviews, said John Risch, national legislative director for the transportation division of SMART. He told reporters in a Wednesday morning teleconference from Washington, D.C.,  that environmental review has become a way to thwart or delay projects. He suggested the state’s approach could slow the Cherry Point project and “would be a regulatory nightmare.’’

By contrast he painted the Corps’ approach as “reasonable and rational” and like other Army Corps reviews. “Our union supports and virtually all labor unions support environmental reviews that have high standards,’’ he said.

But asked whether labor could seek legal action to challenge the projects, Risch deferred to project sponsors.

In a repeat of industry and labor’s past arguments, Risch explained the reason for supporting the projects. The biggest is that “expanded ports and trade means expanded economic opportunities” for ports and other communities. Although Gateway Pacific is primarily meant to ship millions of tons of coal a year, Risch said improved infrastructure also will “make our west coast ports more competitive’’ for exports of agricultural products, commodities, potash and coal.

Environmentalists aligned against the projects see the global market for coal past its peak and even declining in the U.S. – including plans in law to phase out a coal burning power plant inCentralia by 2025. They oppose helping Chinawith a new source of dirty fossil fuels implicated directly in the climate changes that are warming the planet, melting polar ice fields, elevating sea levels and changing the acidity of thePacific Ocean in a way that is harmful to sea life.

“The Army Corps decision to do a separate EIS document on Cherry Point takes a very narrow view of the environmental impacts from coal export and is just further delaying and confusing the process,” said Beth Doglio of the Power Past Coal coalition, in an email. “The Corps has a blinders-on approach in not considering how communities along the transport lines – both rail and marine - would be impacted by this proposal. Six otherfederal agencies, seven tribes, numerous elected officials and municipalities, and 120,000 citizens have called for a full and thorough review of the coal export proposals.”

Doglio described Power Past Coal as a coalition “representing hundreds of organizations, communities, businesses and health officials opposed to coal export off the West Coast.”

Also speaking out with Risch were Herb Krohn, Washington state legislative director for SMART’s transportation division, and Jeffery Soth, of the Operating Engineers union who said he grew up in Whatcom County where the Pacific Gateway project would be built.

Krohn said the Ecology approach is unprecedented and “has the potential to bring all future industrial developments to a halt in our state.’’  Soth said the project could create 2,000 jobs ofwhich a couple hundred would be operating engineers that run heavy equipment or work as mechanics as a site is being prepared.

But the Whatcom County communities are divided on the project, and several Lummi tribal totem pole carvers passed through Olympia this week as part of a 1,700 mile trip to raise awareness of health and environmental impacts from the coal proposals.

Labor groups appear fairly well united on the export issue. The Washington State Labor Council voted to approve a resolution last year that needed a two-thirds supermajority support to pass. Council spokeswoman Kathy Cummings said there was no strong dissent. More recently the AFL-CIO voted at its convention in Los Angeles to back the exports of coal.

Gov. Jay Inslee has not taken a clear position for or against the export facilities, but he enjoyed support form both environmental and labor groups during his campaign last year. The Democratic environmentalist governor is also a clear advocate of responding to climate change, moving the nation’s economy away from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives, and he has said he wants to let the state’s regulatory review run its course.

“We’re not interested in picking a fight with the governor,” Krohn said, describing Inslee as noncommittal on this issue. “We supported him. We think the governor tends to be good on labor issues.”

The environmental permitting process is expected to take about two years for the Cherry Point project. Scoping work on the environmental review of the Millennium project at Longview is just getting under way, and hearings are ongoing around the state to consider what approach Ecology should take.

Stay tuned.

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