Northwest leaders: coal export proposal deserves environmental review

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst

A proposal to develop new marine coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington, which could ship between 75 million and 175 million tons of Powder River Basin coal annually to Asia, has drawn concern from environmentalists in the region. The National Wildlife Federation and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders have released a report outlining various environmental concerns to local communities brought on by coal production in the region. The six export terminals would be located in Cherry-Point, Grays Harbor, Longview, Port of St. Helens, Port of Morrow and Coos Bay.

In the report, entitled “The True Cost of Coal,” the authors state that the proposed projects would pose threats to public health and set back decades of successful environmental recovery efforts in the region.  Among the detriments cited in the report are air pollution from coal dust, noise pollution and congestion from increased train traffic, increased risk of invasive species from tanker traffic as well as mercury deposition and ocean acidification, which could lead to the loss of salmon and steelhead, critical to the regional economy. A number of local communities and organizations, including Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and Oregon’s Environmental Justice Task Force and the American Indian Yakama Nation tribe, have called upon Governor John Kitzhaber (D-OR) to delay any coal-export projects until a comprehensive health impact assessment is completed.

The effort is being pushed by mining corporations, including Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy and Ambre Energy North America. The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which advocates for the aforementioned entities, contends that “the proposed terminals would create thousands of new jobs and generate tens of millions in additional tax revenue for schools and other services in Washington and Oregon. The group’s website further maintains that the six proposed coal export terminals “can be built in a safe and environmentally responsible way.”

The issue has garnered attention from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) has introduced H.R. 6202, the True Cost of Coal Act. The bill imposes a $10 per ton tax on coal and establishes a Coal Mitigation Trust Fund to mitigate potential negative environmental impacts of coal transportation. The bill is unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled House. Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Denny Rehberg (R-MT), both supporters of Powder River Basin coal production, have been joined by leading Republicans and some Democrats in calling on the Obama administration to initiate project-specific permit reviews rather than the broad environmental impact assessments environmental advocates endorse.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has issued a letter requesting that the Bureau of Land Management and the US Army Corps of Engineers conduct an expedited comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed coal export terminals in the region.  The letter notes the potential economic benefits the exports will create for the Pacific Northwest region. “The potential benefits include the construction of coal transport infrastructure, jobs on trains and barges and at ports, and improvements to our region’s rail and shipping infrastructure,” the letter asserts.  “At a time when we need to be doing everything possible to promote economic development and get Oregonians back to work, the proposals could have benefits for our state.”

Nonetheless, the letter suggests areas of focus for the proposed EIS that would seek to inform and allay concerns raised by Oregon and Washington communities. “Relatively localized issues to be studied should include potential impacts on public health from coal dust and diesel pollution; effects on water quality; effects on listed species such as Chinook Salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Willamette rivers; effects on other critical habitat and aquatic resources; effects on cultural resources and historic sites; and the effects of mining activity on public lands.” Merkley’s letter also states that: “We should not make public policy decisions that could constitute significant moves toward a more coal-dependent future without gathering and publicly disclosing the best possible information and engaging in the appropriate analysis.”

Photo Credit: NWF

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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