Report adds to debate over coal exports

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

Updated: July 31, 2012, 7:28 PM

 

Citing a host of environmental concerns, two conservation organizations outlined their opposition to proposed Northwest coal export facilities in a 32-page report released Tuesday.

“The True Cost of Coal,” issued jointly by the National Wildlife Federation and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, calls for an extensive review of the impacts that the half-dozen planned facilities would bring to Washington and Oregon. The report also urges state and federal permitting agencies to better engage local tribes in that process.

Some tribal leaders have already spoken out against coal export facilities, pointing to potential damage to Columbia River fish and natural habitat. Both could be hurt by port expansions and worsened water quality as coal trains — and coal dust — move through the area, according to this week’s report.

“All the evidence points to serious harm of steelhead, salmon and the communities that depend on them,” Peter LaFontaine, an energy policy advocate with the Virginia-based National Wildlife Federation, said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. The steelheaders association, based in Milwaukie, Ore., is an affiliate organization.

The conservation groups’ anti-coal position doesn’t come as a surprise, but it does add fuel to an already heated debate. Coal backers have proposed six facilities — three in Washington, three in Oregon. The export terminals would bring in coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, then ship it to energy-hungry markets in Asia.

Familiar concerns

This week’s report mostly echoes concerns already raised by other groups — among them heavy rail traffic, coal dust, air and water quality. Supporters have touted the facilities as a much-needed economic boost to the Northwest. If coal companies don’t bring those jobs here, they argue, they’ll just go somewhere else.

Players on both sides of the debate appear to be taking footholds recently. Last week, a broad coalition of business, labor and trade organizations launched the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports in favor of coal terminals and the jobs they’d bring. Even local communities — without much say in the ultimate decision — have weighed in. In July, the Vancouver City Council asked to have a voice at the table as coal plans, including a proposed terminal in Longview, get a closer look.

The six proposed coal facilities could send a combined 150 million tons of coal through the region each year, according to this week’s report. A world already confronting climate change head-on needs to carefully consider the costs of such an operation, said Felice Stadler, an energy campaign director with the National Wildlife Federation.

“A project of this magnitude cannot be rushed through the environmental review process,” she said.