Big Coal, Small Towns: Washington residents debate new coal export terminals

By Chelsea Vitone

Longview, Washington of Cowlitz County is the latest in the list of Washington towns being prepped for a new coal terminal. Members of Ambre Energy North America and Arch Coal, along with the city of Longview, are vying for the former Reynolds Aluminum smelter to become a site for coal trains from across the country to export the product to China. The proposed terminal, and surrounding areas, would be a thoroughfare for about 48.5 million tons of coal per year.

Spokesperson for the Department of Ecology, Linda Kent, explained that any project that has the potential for negative effects on the environment or humanity must first complete a compulsory environmental impact assessment in order to gauge whether, or how severe, the consequences of the project may be.

Kent said that a project of this magnitude is subject to extensive review with several phases which could take a year or two to complete. During the environmental review process, spanning four months from August 16 to November 18, 2013, the public has the opportunity to comment on key concerns or areas of focus that the final environmental impact statement (EIS) should encompass. Between September 17 and October 17, 2013, there were five meetings in Longview, Spokane, Pasco, Clark County Fairgrounds, and Tacoma to determine at what scope the EIS should be conducted.

On October 17, 2013 at the Tacoma Convention Center, community members for and against the coal terminal project came together to voice their opinions and concerns about the project. The Washington State Ecology Department, councilmembers from Cowlitz County, and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers formed the Co-lead Board, which the public hoped to influence. The massive space was set to accommodate 2,300 bodies with about two hundred of the seats full. Kent pointed out that while the event was set up for public speaking, there had already been over fifty thousand comments submitted in writing.

The auditorium was split in a stark dichotomy of anti-terminal supporters decked out in red, waving red-lettered signs bearing the words “Red Herrings” and “NO COAL”,and pro-terminal supporters wearing the bright blue t-shirts with the company name Millennium emblazoned on the front holding signs that read “More Exports, More Jobs”.

Since this project is the end point for coal traveling across the country and intended for the export of coal to China, those opposed to the terminal are asking for the board to consider a comprehensive global review in order to assess any possible way Washingtonians may be affected. From the website of the Sierra Club–home of the Power Past Coal Coalition–it states, “We want Ecology to do a broad review of the impacts of this project – from impacts along the rail line, to the impacts of burning coal abroad.” Members of the Millennium Company on the other hand say it is unprecedented to review impacts comprehensively and asks for the board to only review the impact on a limited scope of the site itself.

Upon arrival, attendees were given raffle tickets to enter a lottery system for the chance to speak on stage. Speakers ranged from elected officials such as senators from Clark County, Mason County, Mayors of Steilacoom and Olympia and city council-people to union members, blue collar employees and executives from Millennium, Sierra Club members, tribal leaders of Washington’s First Nation and other residents worried about how their land and/or lives could be affected.

Of the seventy people that spoke, fifty-five were against the new terminal and sixteen spoke in favor of it, while only one spoke from a neutral position, asking simply for a thorough, impartial assessment.

People opposed to the terminal presented topics such as health risks from coal dust, carcinogens in the air and other air pollution, water pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, climate change and more.

The terminal advocates spoke from a working class perspective of the unemployment levels in Tacoma being the lowest statewide by nearly one percent. This terminal is seen as an opportunity to supply hundreds of jobs, which while not permanent, will put food on the table.

The argument boiled down to environment versus economy, which Courtney Wallace, regional director of public affairs for the railways, said is a “false choice. You can have both, not one or the other.”

When questioned about the divergence between ecology and economy, Sierra Club member Kathleen Ridihalgh said that “we are not anti-economy. We love jobs. Who doesn’t love jobs? It’s not a matter of the environment versus economy, it is a the entire state of Washington versus coal.”