A man coughs — perhaps an embellished cough — then a female voice-over comes in:
“Northwest families are tired of out-of-state CEOs making a buck,” she begins, “by pushing risky and polluting projects on local communities.”
The minute-long radio ad began airing on two Portland stations in October. But Vancouver residents whose first thought was oil were mistaken. The ad’s primary target is coal, particularly a proposed coal export terminal in Longview.
In 2012 and 2013, public meetings on coal exports drew hundreds of people in Clark County and elsewhere. Since then, the issue has faded some from the limelight, largely overshadowed by a plan to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver.
Yet, coal continues to be an active and unresolved fight in the Northwest. The Sierra Club recently launched a new ad campaign to keep up pressure against the Longview project even as environmental activists question its viability. Backers of the terminal say they remain committed to building it, despite repeated delays.
“That public pressure has a significant impact on how these processes move forward — or don’t, as the case may be,” said Meg Matthews, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
Millennium Bulk Terminals has proposed building a Columbia River export terminal that could handle up to 44 million metric tons of coal per year. Coal would arrive on trains traveling from Wyoming and Montana — and through Vancouver — to Longview. It would then be shipped to customers primarily in Asia.
Cowlitz County, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are reviewing the proposal, which was first floated in 2012. Earlier this month, the agencies announced another delay in an already long process. The county and state will release a draft environmental impact statement on April 30, 2016. The federal version of the sweeping document will be released in July.
The reviewing agencies had planned to release a draft environmental impact statement for the project in November, but couldn’t meet that deadline.
The delay was caused by a combination of factors, said ecology spokesman Chase Gallagher. Such delays aren’t unusual for a large project and a review with such a wide scope, he said. That’s often a multi-year year process, he said.
“We’re still ahead of the average on these things,” Gallagher said.
Millennium, for its part, said it was “disappointed” by the delay but pleased to be on track with a new firm deadline. In a statement released when the delay was announced, Millennium CEO Bill Chapman pointed out the project’s already long timeline.
“It will soon be four years since Millennium submitted our complete permit applications,” Chapman said. “We and our investors remain dedicated to seeing this project built and operating.”
On the Millennium website, a counter tracks the amount of time since the permitting process began. As of Friday: three years, eight months and 18 days.
Millennium hasn’t sat idle while coal opponents try to sway public opinion. On Oct. 19, the company hosted a press conference and tour at the site. The event included business and labor leaders, and legislators from Washington, Montana and Wyoming.
Meanwhile, advocates continue to point out that lagging coal prices and a volatile market could put the Longview terminal and other planned facilities on shaky ground. A few proposals in Washington and Oregon have already fizzled in recent years. The campaign to defeat them hasn’t.
“Our approach stays the same,” Matthews said. “Whether the timeline is a month from now or six months from now doesn’t really change things for us.”