Hearings to begin on coal terminal

Proposed Longview facility has echoes of earlier controversies

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Public meetings

• What: The first of a series of meetings on a proposed coal terminal in Longview.

• When: Open house noon to 8:00 p.m. Tuesday; oral comment 1 to 4 p.m., 5 to 8 p.m.

• Where: Cowlitz Expo Center, 1900 Seventh Ave., Longview.

• Later: A similar meeting will follow Oct. 9 at the Clark County Fairgrounds.

• Information:ecy.wa.gov/geographic/millennium.

Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview LLC has proposed building and operating a facility in Longview capable of handling up to 44 million tons of coal annually. The coal would be sent by rail from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, through Vancouver en route to Longview, then shipped to energy-hungry markets including Asia.

Cowlitz County, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are holding meetings to ask what should be considered in a broad environmental review of the proposal. Similar meetings on another coal project last year drew thousands of people across the state. The Oct. 9 meeting at the Clark County Fairgrounds will have an open house from noon to 8 p.m. Oral comment will be accepted from 1 to 4 p.m. and from 5 to 8 p.m.

Why does Millennium want to build this terminal?

Its primary owner, Ambre Energy, has struggled to move its coal business forward in Australia, so it's looking to grow in the Western United States. The minority partner, Pennsylvania-based Arch Coal Inc., is fighting against the push across the United States to reduce coal burning in favor of cleaner, renewable fuels.

Over the past five years, demand in Asia, particularly China, for coal has grown exponentially to fuel expanding economies. The coal in Montana and Wyoming is one of the largest deposits in the continent and burns more cleanly than most coal worldwide. Millennium officials say they can supply Asian demand with Powder River Basin coal.

Didn't Millennium already fail to get a permit for a coal terminal?

Sort of. In fall 2010, then-named Millennium Bulk Logistics applied for permits to build a much smaller coal terminal. Cowlitz County commissioners approved the proposal, but emails among the company's Australia-based owners were uncovered indicating they planned a much larger terminal. The company dropped the permit, its CEO left and a new leadership team took over.

What are opponents' major concerns about this coal terminal, and coal exports in general?

Opponents, led by environmentalists, citizens' groups and tribes, worry that burning more coal, in any place, will increase greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Instead of providing more markets for the coal industry, elected officials should encourage renewable energy production, opponents say.

Closer to home, they fear Millennium will not be able to keep all the coal on site and dust will escape, coat nearby homes or float into the Columbia River and harm fish habitat.

How harmful is coal dust, and will it blow off the piles at Millennium and into town?

Long-term, direct, heavily concentrated exposure to coal is clearly unhealthy, as shown by the prevalence of black lung in coal miners. However, the effect of fugitive coal dust on nearby residents is unclear. Residents in coal-terminal towns, such as the Vancouver, B.C., suburb of Delta, have complained that dust coats their homes as far as three miles away and makes them sick, but that is unconfirmed.

Millennium officials say they will unload all train cars in enclosed spaces while spraying it with water, limiting fugitive coal dust to almost nothing. The giant piles will then be sprayed to keep the coal in place, Millennium says.

What about dust escaping during hundreds of miles of transport? Why can't the trains just be covered?

In 2010 testimony, BNSF Railway told the National Surface Transportation Board that coal train cars can lose up to 3 percent of their load, but BNSF officials say those remarks were taken out of context and referred to a worst-case scenario.

Since then, the railroad has imposed stricter requirements on coal companies to spray surfactants (sticky substances) on coal at the mine sites to reduce dust during transport. Both the coal companies and railroads say they don't think dust is a big enough problem to require covers.

How long will Millennium be able to sell its coal? Might a coal terminal lack business as energy markets change?

International markets can be difficult to predict, but recent signs have not boded well for coal exports. According to an Australian index, prices for thermal coal (which Millennium hopes to export) fell more than 40 percent this summer, to less than $80 a ton, down from a peak of $140 per ton in 2011.

In a July report, investment bank Goldman Sachs declared "the window to invest profitably in new mining capacity is closing" and dropped its price forecasts for the next two years by more than 10 percent. Heavy Chinese demand in 2012 led to an oversupply, which Goldman Sachs economists believe will allow China to back away from international markets for the next few years.

The Chinese government recently announced a ban on new coal-fired plants in three of its largest industrial regions to improve air quality and reducing coal's portion of its energy needs 5 percent, to 65 percent. However, the nation's overall burning of coal will likely to continue increasing, just not as rapidly, according to energy analysts.

What about other coal terminal projects? Will they affect whether Millennium can build?

Two projects are farther along the regulatory path than Millennium. Regulators will decide on permits for each individually.

Developer SSA Marine has proposed the $600 million Gateway Pacific coal terminal in Whatcom County near Bellingham. With a capacity of 50 million tons, it would be North America's largest coal export facility. The agencies already have a scope of work for this project, with a wide-ranging review by Ecology of the terminal's impacts from the mine to factory, including greenhouse gases -- a big surprise to most observers.

Ecology's decision spurred the corps to conduct its own hearings in Longview and Vancouver and write a separate environmental impact statement and has industry groups worried similar standards will apply to projects statewide.

In Oregon, Ambre Energy, Millennium's parent company, wants to build barge docks at the Port of Morrow and at Port Westward near Clatskanie. Trains would bring coal to the Port of Morrow, where it would be loaded onto barges, which would then transfer the coal again to ocean-going vessels at Port Westward.