TACOMA — Hundreds of coal opponents demanded that regulators consider the harmful environmental effects of increased worldwide coal burning before granting building permits for a proposed coal export dock west of Longview.
“Cheap coal is a false path to national security. It’s a false path to prosperity. Global warming is certainly a false path to economic growth,” Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said at the Tacoma Convention Center on Thursday night.
Supporters of Millennium Bulk Terminals wore blue shirts at a rally on the sidewalk outside before the hearing and waved clocks signaling “It’s time for more jobs.” They’re calling for regulators to speed up the permit process.
Organizers set up chairs for 2,300 people for the last of five public “scoping” hearings on the proposed $643 million Millennium coal dock at the former Reynolds Metals Co. site.
Only about 885 people showed up, according to regulators, and the crowd dwindled to a few hundred by the end of the three-hour hearing. Last month, a crowd three times larger crammed into the Cowlitz Expo Center for the first meeting in Longview.
Once again, opponents outnumbered Millennium supporters by at least 2-to-1, similar to the ratio at previous hearings in Longview, Vancouver, Pasco and Spokane. They wore red and waved signs that said, “Red Herring designed to distract from the real issue.” They said the potential for job growth at the terminal is not worth the potential environmental damage.
Regulators from Cowlitz County, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have received more than 50,000 written and oral comments, which they will use to help determine what issues to consider in their environmental review of the project. The written comment period ends Nov. 18.
Regulators say they hope to determine a scope of study next spring, but they declined to set a deadline. Corps officials say they are planning to write a separate environmental impact statement.
Millennium plans to export 44 million tons of coal annually and generate 16 daily train trips to and from the site. The coal terminal would employ 135 workers and create more than 2,500 jobs during construction, according to Millennium.
Opponents want regulators to study all ecological impacts of the terminal, from the mines in the Powder River Basin to the rail lines to the coal-fired power plants in Asia. Coal supporters and business development interests counter that such a broad review, if applied to all industrial projects, would discourage companies from locating in the state.
“Would we apply this type of criteria to the export of wood pellets? I hope we would not,” said state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.
A coalition of industry and labor groups say Millennium is planning to follow environmental regulations and bring valuable jobs to the area. They insist that Asian demand for coal is an opportunity to expand the U.S. economy.
“The developing world will use coal. The question is, will it be ours or someone else’s?” said Karen Alderman Hart, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for 21st Century Energy.
She added, “It’s a symbol of whether America is open for business, not just whether Washington is open for business.”
At previous hearings, many opponents said they worried that increased train traffic and coal dust from cars could hurt communities along the rail line.
But closer to the center of the Puget Sound green movement, concerns focused on how burning coal could contribute to climate change. Dozens of speakers urged regulators to head off coal exports while they can to prevent global warming and protect the environment for future generations.
“How is it that the people who didn’t even contribute to the climate crisis will be the first to suffer? It’s not a future I want to live in. It’s not a future that anyone wants to live in,” said Gabe Mandell, a sixth-grader from Seattle.
About 60 people spoke during the hearing for up to three minutes each. As was the case at other hearings, people waved signed in support instead of clapping to save time. Two Tacoma police officers sat in the back, but the hearing remained civil.
Regulators said they were pleased at the quality of discussion at the five hearings.
“I’ve learned that people care about their communities in a whole range of ways,” said Sally Toteff, Ecology’s southwest regional director.