Coal may bring new life to Longview plant

Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview envisions turning former aluminum smelter into coal terminal, bringing jobs and tax revenue; foes say benefits overstated, environmental threats many

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Public meetings

Scoping meetings Wednesday at fairgrounds

The scoping period for the environmental review of Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview's proposed coal-export operation began Aug. 16 and wraps up Nov. 18. During this period, regulators are gathering comments to help them decide what environmental impacts to analyze.Scoping meetings already have been held in Longview, Spokane and Pasco. The next one is from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Clark County Fairgrounds. Oral comment periods are from 1 to 4 p.m. and from 5 to 8 p.m.

During the meeting, information about the project will be available, and officials will be on hand to answer questions.

People also can view information about the proposed project and comment at any time during the 95-day comment period. Some options are available 24 hours a day, including:

• The official environmental impact statement website: www.millenniumbulkeiswa.gov

• Email: comments@millenniumbulkeiswa.gov

• Mail: Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview EIS, c/o ICF International, 710 Second Ave., Suite 550, Seattle, WA 98104.--Aaron Corvin

The sprawling site of a former aluminum smelter in Longview faces so many hurdles in its bid to be reborn as a coal-shipping terminal that it's hard to know where to start.

Terminal developers must navigate a bramble of none-too-easy to obtain permits from local, state and federal governments.

Spirited opposition gathers in the form of activists carrying a litany of concerns, among them: the exacerbation of human-induced climate change, increased train traffic in communities small and large, and toxic coal discharges from trains into the Columbia River. And the global market for coal softens, prompting business analysts to question the wisdom of massive capital investment in exports.

Yet the leaders of Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview exude both patience and confidence. They fire back against critics with arguments and long-term analyses of their own.

"Coal is a commodity, and commodity prices fluctuate. That's just a fact," Wendy Hutchinson, vice president of public affairs for Millennium, told a Columbian reporter during a recent tour of the company's roughly 540-acre location, southwest of Longview's downtown.

She noted projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing coal will remain a dominant source of energy for decades to come.

Millennium, owned by Ambre Energy and Arch Coal Inc., aims to transform its brownfield property into a muscular machine exporting up to 44 million metric tons of coal annually to energy-thirsty Asia.

The company's plan is one of some 14 different coal- and oil-handling expansion proposals and operations roiling energy politics in the Northwest. It's

also one of three coal proposals in Washington and Oregon serving as linchpins in a much broader struggle between renewable-energy advocates and coal producers. And, in Millennium's case, that struggle has reached a critical environmental-review stage. In this stage, called "scoping," backers and opponents are squared off over two central tasks: to sharpen their best arguments and evidence for and against Millennium's proposal and, by doing so, to wrest control over how the impacts of the coal plan should be evaluated by regulatory agencies who have the final say over whether the project gets built.

It's all coming to Clark County on Wednesday, when opponents, eyeing an opportunity to defeat dirty coal, and backers, envisioning jobs triggered by a legal commodity, are expected to pack the Clark County Fairgrounds for hourslong scoping meetings under state and federal environmental laws.

Through scoping -- the first step in a complicated and likely multiyear process -- Cowlitz County, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are collecting public comments to help them decide how to study Millennium's proposal. Eventually, the agencies will create draft environmental impact statements spelling out the likely detrimental impacts the Millennium plan will have on land, air, water and the built environment.

More public review will follow and environmental impact statements will be finalized. Regulators will consult those impartial, fact-filled reference documents as they later consider whether to grant permits to Millennium's vision of Southwest Washington as a transfer hub for coal.

"Scoping comments aren't the only influence" on the environmental-review process, said Linda Kent, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology, "but they're an influence."

Industrial rebirth?

For a working waterfront industrial operation, Millennium's site is quieter than you might expect. Several empty buildings rise amid its vastness.

The company, which employs 37 people, now handles about 100,000 short tons of coal annually, importing the commodity by rail for use by the neighboring Weyerhaeuser complex. Millennium also moves alumina from ship to rail to supply an aluminum smelter in Wenatchee, where about 450 people work.

Before Millennium, Reynolds Metals Co. owned and operated an aluminum smelter at the site from 1941 to 2000. Inside cavernous buildings, charred spaces and stenciled warnings -- "Dress Defensively" -- speak to the grueling work Reynolds oversaw.

The smelter was shuttered in 2001. Now, Northwest Alloys-Alcoa owns the land, while Millennium, the site operator, owns the business assets.

Under a process separate from the coal plan review, the state Department of Ecology is working with Northwest Alloys-Alcoa and Millennium to inspect and clean up the mess left by Reynolds. Meanwhile, Millennium sees in its coal proposal the rejuvenation of a decades-old former industrial operation into a state-of-the-art facility with international reach. Instead of a hollowed-out throwback to the U.S. aluminum industry, the site would be born again as an exporter of energy to fuel industry in faraway lands.

Under its plan, the company would spend an estimated $600 million to build a coal-export facility encompassing about 190 acres of the 540-acre site. Millennium would use rail to move coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to its terminal. From there it would be shipped to Asian markets.

Building the coal operation would generate 1,350 direct, temporary construction jobs and 135 direct, full-time jobs at full build-out, according to an economic impact study conducted for Millennium by Seattle consultant Berk. Company officials say the economic benefits go beyond direct jobs to include $2.2 million in annual state tax revenues and $1.7 million in annual county tax revenues.

The giant investment is not without financial risk as a growing number of industry analysts question the depth of global demand for coal, with China rapidly expanding its renewable energy development.

"Global coal prices right now are not supportive of large-scale U.S. coal exports," Anthony Yuen, a Citigroup energy analyst, told The New York Times in September.

Hutchinson, the Millennium public affairs official, said the company understands the coal market, and that market will strengthen in years to come.

"This is a long-term investment for long-term demand for coal," she said.

As Hutchinson walked through the would-be coal-shipping operation with a reporter for The Columbian, she spoke with pride of what the brownfield site could become. Having grown up in the Midwest, she said, she's aware of that region's large share of abandoned industries. In Millennium's proposed coal terminal, Hutchinson envisions an industrial rebirth in Longview.

"Having the opportunity to turn it into something, that's vibrant. That creates family-wage jobs, that's exciting," she said.

'Case by case'

But Millennium is advancing its project in a time when the promise of family-wage jobs won't clinch the deal. And as environmental issues take on more importance in public policy, the kind of environmental evaluation its project will receive -- and that will influence whether it gets a green light -- may be up for grabs.

Opponents and backers fully understand this.

They're playing their hands this way: pepper the project with the best arguments for and against it, with an eye toward pushing regulators to investigate Millennium's proposal in a manner favorable to their side. For proponents, that includes touting jobs but also calling for a limited environmental review and pointing to the tools available to Millennium to soften the blow of its project's impacts. For opponents, that means ticking off a comprehensive list of shocks to the natural and built environment -- the kind they argue overwhelm mitigation efforts -- and urging regulators to conduct the broadest possible environmental examination.

In Millennium's push for a limited review, there's a bigfoot in the room that's a major driver behind the arguments over how the Longview coal terminal should be vetted: a proposed export operation at Cherry Point near Bellingham. That Gateway Pacific facility would handle 54 million import/export tons of bulk commodities annually -- largely coal exports to Asia.

In that case, the state Department of Ecology decided on an extensive environmental-impact evaluation, including such issues as the increased rail-transportation shocks to communities in and out of Washington state and the greenhouse-gas impacts of burning coal overseas.

To coal terminal opponents, the state's decision on the Cherry Point review should be a model for a similarly expansive review of Millennium's proposal.

"We want to do everything to make sure that the broad review happens," said Vancouver resident Don Steinke, who's involved in the "Power Past Coal" campaign. He's hoping to help turn out 500 people at the scoping meeting in Vancouver to press that and other points. The harm that runaway global climate change will do to the environment and other parts of the economy "will dwarf any benefits of the coal terminal," Steinke said.

Proponents of coal-shipping facilities are pushing back.

The Seattle law firm Foster Pepper, which has done work for BNSF Railway, issued a legal bulletin in August taking the state to task for its decision on the Cherry Point review. One of its questions: Will state regulators also analyze "proposed manufacturing facilities, transportation terminals, distribution centers, shopping centers, 'big box' retail stores and the like" for not just local construction impacts but also "statewide, national and global impacts of the transportation of goods and materials to and from such facilities and the ultimate use of the goods wherever that may occur?"

The state Department of Ecology is co-leading Millennium's review with Cowlitz County. Those agencies are coordinating reviews with the Army Corps of Engineers, although the Corps is conducting its own separate examination. Patricia Graesser, a Corps spokeswoman, said the federal agency will direct a geographically limited, site-specific review of coal-export proposals. But that doesn't mean the Corps disapproves of the state's decision to conduct a broader review of the Gateway proposal, Graesser said. Federal and state environmental laws are different, she added, so the agencies are taking different approaches accordingly.

Meanwhile, just because the state decided to conduct a broad review of the coal-export proposal near Bellingham doesn't necessarily mean it will put Millennium's proposal under a similar microscope.

"It's too soon to say what the Millennium review is going to look like," said Kent, the spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology. "It is case by case, and we can't prejudge."

'Fair and timely'

But the upcoming scoping proceedings in Vancouver are just as much about passion over jobs and the natural environment as they are about battling over the lens through which regulatory agencies judge Millennium's proposal.

Lauri Hennessey is spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, a pro-coal export group whose membership includes coal companies, railroads and labor unions. She said people in Longview want the additional family-wage jobs Millennium's coal-export venture would bring. They're passionate about it, she said.

"This has been a long slog," Hennessey said. Longview residents "have been waiting a long time and going through a lot of meetings." She added: "We like to think about the fact that these projects will help the whole region."

And Millennium sees the global, as well as the local, benefits of its project. Millennium's Hutchinson said the company is girding to help meet global demand for coal-fired electricity and increased living standards.

Today's thirst in Asia for fossil-fueled growth is "no different" than that of America's in the 1940s, Hutchinson said.

But it's not the 1940s anymore.

The catastrophic impacts of global warming, triggered by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, loom.

Late last month, a panel of the world's leading climate scientists released its fifth assessment report, saying there's no doubt the planet is warming at an accelerated pace and that, with 95 percent certainty, humans are the "dominant cause" since the 1950s.

As global mean temperatures increase, according to the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "it is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and duration."

The U.S. is moving to implement tougher regulations on coal-plant emissions. And China has indicated it will take more steps to curb coal pollution.

Does Millennium acknowledge human-caused global warming?

Hutchinson said the company has "never made a policy statement" about it.

Opponents, meanwhile, are looking ahead to Wednesday's scoping meetings in Clark County, preparing to make plenty of statements about coal and global warming and other potential harmful impacts.

In an email to The Columbian, Stephen Hulick, a Hockinson resident who's involved in the "Power Past Coal" campaign, said "the prevailing winds from China blow easterly across the Pacific Ocean and will deposit the pollution in the ocean and northwestern U.S."

He added: "It would be as if new coal fired power plants were being permitted in the U.S. while not meeting (Environmental Protection Agency) emission standards."

Whether opponents or their coal-backing adversaries ultimately win greater influence over the fate of Millennium's plan is an open question.

"What we want is a fair and timely review," Hutchinson said. But she knows the company doesn't get to call all of the shots in a complicated public process that has only begun.

What if Millennium ends up facing an environmental review of global proportions?

"We don't really have a choice," she said. "It's up to the regulators."