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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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State denies key permit for Longview coal terminal


LONGVIEW — In a potentially fatal blow to Millennium Bulk Terminal’s proposed Longview coal export dock, the state Department of Ecology has denied a water quality permit for the project, concluding that it would cause unavoidable harm to the environment.

The $680 million terminal would worsen air quality, vehicle traffic, vessel traffic, rail capacity, rail safety, noise pollution, social and community resources, cultural resources and tribal resources, Ecology said Tuesday.

“The 1971 State Environmental Policy Act confers an awesome responsibility on the Department of Ecology and that is a responsibility to protect land, air and water for future generation and I take that responsibility very seriously,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said. “And future generations deserve no less than Department of Ecology’s decision today to deny the Millennium coal export terminal to be constructed on the shores of the Columbia River.”

The terminal is contested by some in Vancouver and the Columbia River Gorge because of the 16 nearly mile-and-a-half-long coal trains it would bring through the area on a daily basis.

Citing the volume of coal that would move through the city, the Vancouver City Council passed a resolution opposing the project last year.

Bellon called the project “unprecedented” in scope, noting that the terminal would move 44 million metric tons of coal annually — making it one of the largest coal terminals in North America. Coal would be piled eight stories high and 50 football fields wide, according to Ecology. The project alone would boost U.S. coal exports by 40 percent.

Millennium needs a state water quality certification under the federal Clean Water Act before it can fill wetlands and dredge the riverbed. It’s one of 23 permits the company needs before it can build the terminal at the site of the former Reynolds Metals Co. aluminum plant.

“Ecology appears to have intentionally disregarded decades of law defining the Clean Water Act to reject the water quality certification requested for Millennium’s project,” said Bill Chapman, CEO and president of Millennium in a prepared statement. “Multiple recent decisions by the agency seem biased against the Longview community, and particularly blind to the need for employment opportunities in Cowlitz County.”

Chapman said the final EIS “confirmed the ability of Millennium’s project to meet Washington state’s strict water quality standards.” He said the company would appeal Ecology’s decision to the state Environmental and Land Use Hearings Office and that he expects “a fairer and more consistent interpretation of the law.”

“We remain confident in our judicial system, where the facts will be interpreted in an unbiased manner and this water quality certification will be granted,” Chapman said.

Second major blow

Ecology’s denial is a second major recent blow to the project. The state Department of Natural Resources earlier this year rejected an aquatic lands sublease. A hearing on Millennium’s appeal of the sublease denial is scheduled for October.

“Millennium can appeal (Tuesday’s) decision, but the writing is on the wall that this project doesn’t meet permitting standards for the state of Washington,” said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, organizer with Columbia Riverkeeper, a member of the Power Past Coal Coalition.

Ecology also would have to approve a major shoreline permit for the terminal, and Zimmer-Stucky argued that “today’s decision is foreshadowing … I think it’s that Millennium is going to have a very hard time convincing the Department of Ecology to authorize a permit at a later date.”

Nearly 200,000 comments were submitted to Ecology on Millennium’s water quality certification application alone. That was a record number for Ecology, adding to the thousands of written and verbal comments the agency has collected on the terminal over the project’s five years of permitting.

The project would fill 24 acres of wetlands, require 41.5 acres of dredging of the Columbia River bottom and drive 537 pilings into the river for a new trestle and docks, according to a state environmental impact statement. The terminal would add nearly 1,700 vessel transits to the Columbia River, a quarter of all freight traffic on the waterway.

Sixteen trains carrying Rocky Mountain coal from the terminal would worsen traffic congestion during peak commute times and could affect emergency responders, the agency concluded.

Eight of those trains would delay tribal access to fishing sites upstream of the Bonneville Dam, the state review found.

Locomotive trains carrying coal to the site would increase diesel pollution, boosting the risk of cancer in the Highlands neighborhood of Longview by 10 percent over background county levels, according to the EIS.

Many of Ecology’s objections have nothing to do with the fact that it is a coal project. Other major industrial projects, including any major bulk terminal, could have similar effects, particularly for dock-building, train traffic and dredging needs.

And some of Ecology’s conclusions seem inconsistent with other actions: It approved deepening of the Columbia River shipping lanes more than a decade ago, and that involved thousands of acres of dredging, not just 24 acres. And it discounted some mitigating circumstances: For example, it found that train traffic could add to congestion in Longview despite plans to build a grade separation overpass at the foot of the Lewis and Clark Bridge.  Ecology said the overpass project still is in the planning stages and couldn’t be counted on to ease rail congestion, even though the Legislature has appropriated $85 million for the project.

In a telephone press conference Tuesday, Bellon said she was “agnostic” — uncommitted either way — when she started reviewing the project. She bristled at a suggestion that the decision was arbitrary and singled out the project just because it involves coal.

“I feel our decision is sound and in no way arbitrary,” Bellon said, saying Ecology’s review is based “on science and state-of-the-art modeling.”

She noted that Ecology reviewed 23 areas of potential environmental impact, finding only nine of them could not be mitigated, or compensated for. It was in many ways simply the sheer size of the Millennium project that caused it to fail environmental review, Bellon noted.

Decision celebrated

Environmentalists heralded Tuesday’s decision as essentially the end of the project.

“We hope this decision moves our community away from coal and other fossil fuel based polluting industry on the Lower Columbia,” said Gary Wallace, president of Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, a Longview-based environmental group. “It’s time to move on to the future; clean, sustainable family wage jobs that provide our area a reliable future so we can grow and attract more economic diversity and create the quality of life that maintains and enhances our families.”

In a news release, the Cowlitz Tribe applauded Ecology’s decision. It also called the project “fatally flawed and alleged Millennium’s application is based on assumed scientific outcomes without supporting field work, especially in regards to fish.

“We thank the Department of Ecology for protecting the people of Washington State,” said Cowlitz Chairman William Iyall. ‘The Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export facility has posed a great threat to our people, our food resources including salmon, and to our communities.”

Proponents have argued the terminal could offer a shot in the arm to Cowlitz County’s anemic economy. It would create more than 1,000 construction jobs, 130 permanent jobs and $5.4 million in annual state and local taxes.

“This would help communities in rural Washington, which have not experienced the same economic recovery as the central Puget Sound region. We need a diverse economy in which everyone — in every part of the state — can prosper,”  Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business, said in a press release, adding that he was “disappointed” in Ecology’s decision.

“We are concerned about the process that led to the decision, as well. From the beginning, it has faced unprecedented regulatory hurdles that send the wrong message to employers about Washington’s openness to investment,” Johnson added.

Millennium’s project has been undergoing environmental review for more than five years, and the company has laid out about $15 million for environmental impact studies. The decision whether to permit the project has been one of the most heated and and bitterly fought environmental battles ever waged on the Lower Columbia River region, and the public review process attracted tens of thousands of comments. Millennium has also spent $25 million on cleaning up the former Reynolds Co. site.