The National Wildlife Federation, and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, have joined what is certain to be a long environmental harm vs. economic benefit debate over proposed new facilities aimed at boosting coal exports from the region.
At least six separate proposals are either under active consideration or being discussed to provide facilities along the Columbia River, on the Oregon coast and in Washington’s Puget Sound to provide transfer points for coal bound to an energy hungry Asian market. The coal would be transported by rail from Montana and Wyoming mines, then loaded onto ships headed across the Pacific.
The NWF in a report released jointly with the anglers association on Monday says that a buildup of U.S. coal exports through the Pacific Northwest would threaten public health and cause serious environmental degradation to the region’s natural resources, including the region’s iconic salmon stocks.
“The report warns that the industry’s plan to expand markets abroad will harm fisheries, endanger communities, and increase global warming pollution. Because of a decline in demand in the U.S. for coal, this fight over port expansion in Washington and Oregon will determine the immediate future of the coal industry in the United States,” according to a NWF press release announcing the report’s availability.
“Sending more coal to Asia carries almost no benefits for the U.S., but we pay the price," said Felice Stadler, NWF director of Energy Campaigns. “Degraded fisheries, damaged communities, medical costs, harms to wildlife, and a continued burning of high carbon fuel will cost us dearly for decades.”
The report says that the transfer facilities under consideration in Washington and Oregon together would be capable of sending 150 million tons or more annually to Asian markets.
"There are still too many unanswered questions regarding the potential impact of coal dust on the Columbia River watershed and the health of the river's salmon and steelhead runs, many of which are federally-listed under the Endangered Species Act," said Russell Bassett, executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. "At the very least the Army Corps of Engineers should conduct a programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to study the potential impacts fugitive coal dust would have on the Columbia River and the fisheries that supports billions of dollars in Oregon's and Washington's economies."
The Corps’ districts in its Northwest Division will lead evaluations of the various proposals to assess whether they comply with such statutes as the Rivers and Harbors Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act.
“We will conduct thorough environmental reviews” because permitting such activities constitutes a federal action, said Scott Clemans of the Corps’ Portland District office.
The Corps has, as an example, already launched into the scoping process for a proposal by Ambre Energy subsidiary Coyote Island Terminals, LLC. The company has applied for a Department of the Army permit to build a new coal transfer facility at the Port of Morrow on the Columbia River near Boardman, Ore. Boardman is at about 268 miles upstream of the mouth of the Columbia in the reservoir behind the federal John Day Dam.
Coal would be brought to the facility via rail, transferred to barges, shipped down the Columbia River to Port Westward near Clatskanie, Oregon, and loaded onto ocean-going vessels for export.
The facility would include nine dolphins, walkways, a fixed dock and a conveyor system for loading coal, along with enclosed warehouses in the uplands for storing coal prior to loading onto the barges. Approximately 140 permanent piles ranging from 14 to 24 inches in diameter and 110 temporary 16-inch diameter piles would be installed to complete the project. Over 15,000 square feet of new overwater structure would be constructed.
The Corps issued a 30-day public notice on March 6 soliciting comments from the public; Federal, state, and local agencies and officials; Indian tribes; and other interested parties in order to consider and evaluate the impacts of this proposed activity on endangered species, historic properties, water quality, general environmental effects and other public interest factors.
The comment period was extended an additional 30 days. The Corps is now amidst the process of evaluating the nearly 20,000 comments received. Clemans did say the bulk of were mass mailed cards from special interests groups with the same basic message – don’t allow it.
More substantive comments were submitted from tribes, states, county and other local governmental entities, individuals and special interests groups representing both business and environment.
For more information about the Portland District’s review see:
The Yakama Nation, in public statements and in comments submitted regarding the Coyote proposal, also say a broader look should be taken at the six projects as a whole, and their cumulative impact on Northwest resources.
“There has been an enormous investment in salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest. Now, there are several proposals to export coal that threaten to derail that effort,” Virgil Lewis, chairman of the Yakama Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Committee, said in June. “One proposed coal export terminal will destroy an historic treaty fishing site on the Columbia River.”
The Yakama Nation is requesting a programmatic environmental impact statement to examine the full impact of coal export.
“Currently, there is simply not enough information available to public, local, regional, or tribal governments to make an informed decision on whether coal export is compatible with Northwest salmon recovery and public health. The fish in the Columbia River are of paramount importance to our people, our diet and our health,” said Lewis.
Through the permit process the federal government will decide if they will limit the environmental review to respective sites or take the full impact of coal export to the Pacific Northwest. The issue is being discussed at all levels of the agency, Clemans said.
The NWF report, “The True Cost of Coal,” says ramping up coal exports means sending more coal-laden rail cars through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. That will leave more fugitive coal dust and diesel emissions in communities, deposit more mercury in waterways and create more air and noise pollution from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to Puget Sound, NWF says.
The report can be found at:
“And whether burned in China or the U.S., coal would continue to speed climate change and crowd out cleaner sources of energy like wind and solar power,” the NWF press release says.
NWF issues a series of recommendations for policymakers in the report that would urge further study of the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of the projects including the induced rail traffic, mining activities and climate implications. Federal and state permitting agencies must fully engage tribes in this process as well, the report says.