A proposed Washington state port would increase greenhouse gas emissions, but coal dust from trains traveling from Montana and Wyoming mines would not harm human health, regulators said in a report released Friday.
Those were among the findings in the final environmental impact study released by the Washington State Department of Ecology on the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals project, which would be North America’s largest coal export dock.
The $680 million project outside Longview, Wash., is the last of six proposed Pacific Northwest coal docks standing, but it still faces steep hurdles before becoming reality.
Workers at Millennium would handle 44 million tons of Powder River Basin coal annually, and the facility would generate 16 train trips daily to the port about 50 miles north of Portland, Ore., along the Columbia River.
The fate of the coal port is of big interest to Cloud Peak Energy in Gillette, Wyo., which has an agreement to ship 7 million tons of coal from its three mines in Montana and Wyoming through Longview.
“Cloud Peak Energy remains committed to meeting the needs of our customers in Asia, and the Millennium Bulk Terminal will be an important piece of trade infrastructure in the Pacific-Northwest,” company spokesman Rick Curtsinger said in an email.
The project has become a flashpoint in the struggle between supporters of struggling coal jobs and environmentalists and residents along the proposed route.
Mark Fix, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council in Billings, said the report’s findings are significant for residents in Eastern Montana.
“This is also good news for communities along the rail line, from Montana and Wyoming coalfields all the way to Washington’s coast. Dramatic increases in coal train traffic through our communities would mean increased air pollution, more blocked railroad crossings, and a heightened risk for derailments, not to mention lower property values along the railroad tracks,” Fix, who owns a ranch near Miles City, said in a written statement.
Officials from Ecology and Cowlitz County, which joined the state, highlighted four main points from the report:
• Transporting, handling and burning coal overseas would increase greenhouse gas emission by about 2 million metric tons.
• The amount of coal dust deposited along train tracks and at the proposed terminal would not affect air quality standards and human health.
• Increased train traffic could cause traffic jams in and around Longview.
• Particulate matter from locomotive diesel fumes, a toxic air pollutant, would increase cancer risk rates in neighborhoods along the rail lines in Longview.
The agencies received an unprecedented 267,000 comments on the project.
The report also identified 30 likely costly steps to offset or reduce the environmental impact of the coal dock, including wetland and greenhouse gas mitigation, noise controls and fish and plant studies.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also working on a separate study, targeted for release in the summer. Millennium must address the impacts of both studies to build the dock.
The project still requires permits from more than 20 state and local agencies before developers can begin construction, said Dave Bennett, a Washington Department of Ecology spokesman.
One agency, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, has already denied Millennium an aquatic lands lease. The issue is under litigation, Bennett said.
Even if the port gains regulatory approval, it faces other challenges.
The ground has shifted under the coal industry’s feet since Millennium initially proposed the coal port in 2011. Prices have taken a huge tumble, largely because utilities have turned to cheaper and more abundant natural gas as fuel.
Coal consumption in China, the Pacific Rim’s largest coal consumer, fell in 2016 for the third consecutive year. Chinese leaders have signaled they’re cutting back coal burning to reduce pollution, which could hurt demand from exports through Longview.
Officials at Millennium, who filed the first permit in 2011 to build the terminal, said they aim to meet environmental standards.
“This independent state study shows we can achieve our goals to bring more family-wage jobs to Longview while meeting the high standards for environmental protection in Cowlitz County and Washington State,” Millennium CEO Bill Chapman said in a written statement.
“We have carefully designed the project to protect air and water quality, fish and wildlife, groundwater and people in accordance with regulatory requirements,” he added.
Millennium is wholly owned by Lighthouse Resources, formerly known as Ambre Energy North America.