Cowlitz County commissioners Tuesday approved a shoreline permit that could open the door for a new export industry at Northwest ports, but not at the Port of Tacoma.
That permit is the first of several needed to build a coal export terminal on private land on the Columbia River near Longview. The Millennium Bulk Logistics terminal would handle some 5.7 million tons of coal from Wyoming and Montana bound for Asia.
Millennium is a subsidiary of Australia Ambre Energy. It plans to redevelop the 416-acre site of a former Reynolds Metals aluminum smelter on the river for exporting fuel for Chinese power plants.
Ambre is one of several major coal companies that have approached Northwest ports, including the Port of Tacoma, about creating new coal export terminals.
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“We’ve had several calls over the last several months from coal companies inquiring about our interest in coal exporting,” said Tara Mattina, a Port of Tacoma spokeswoman.
Despite the port’s effort to diversify its business away from container handling, the Tacoma port has told the coal companies it isn’t interested, Mattina said.
“We evaluated those proposals, and we decided that they weren’t for us,” she said.
The coal company proposals have stirred up a firestorm of opposition from environmental groups such as Columbia River-keeper and the Sierra Club, which say that exporting coal to burn in Asian power plants would only add to carbon emissions and toxic pollution in the world’s atmosphere.
Those same environmental groups claim the terminals won’t generate many jobs and could add coal dust and diesel emissions to the local environment.
“The elephant in the room here is opening up the West Coast to exporting coal to China,” Brett VandenHevel, Columbia Riverkeepers’s executive director, told the Oregonian newspaper.
“The fact that it’s being ignored is highly problematic. For us to simultaneously oppose coal plants here and happily export coal to China is inconsistent.”
The coal, mined in vast strip mines in the Powder River Basin on the eastern side of the Rockies, would be transported to the Northwest by long trains. Most of the coal from those mines now moves to Midwestern power plants.
Millennium has told local officials in Cowlitz County that the new terminal will generate 70 permanent new jobs in the community and more jobs during construction. The company argues that if the U.S. doesn’t export coal to China, that country will buy coal from Australia or Indonesia instead.
Millennium’s plans call for dock renovation, dust-control equipment, new rail tracks and ship-loading devices, as well as a large coal stockpiling area. The construction is expected to take about 18 months.
Tacoma rejected the coal company entreaties for several commercial and community reasons, Mattina said.
The coal exporting business, a land-intensive industry, didn’t fit the port’s business plan for the expensive waterfront property on Tacoma Tideflats’ waterways nor did it meet the port’s community commitment, she said.
The presence of long unit coal trains could slow time-sensitive container cargo, and congest the port’s tight road and rail network.
The port has revived its log exporting business in recent months and is looking to reclaim some break-bulk shipping business after its container import and export business imploded because of the recession.