Despite calls from protestors at a courthouse rally Tuesday morning, Cowlitz County officials said they cannot revoke a permit for a controversial West Longview coal terminal.
Commissioner George Raiter said the county simply does not have legal authority to yank the permit, despite evidence released last week that Millennium Bulk Terminals didn't disclose plans for a dramatically expanded terminal.
Later Tuesday morning, however, about 45 protesters dressed in black gathered on the steps of the Cowlitz County Administration Building in Kelso, carrying signs blasting Millennium as "liars." They said they were worried the terminal would provide coal for China, pollution in Longview and profits for Australia-based Millennium.
One man held a sign that simply read: "A Coal Day in Hell."
Willow Grove resident Les Anderson, who lives less than a mile west of the Millennium site, said he's worried area residents will bear the brunt of coal dust that could blow in the air — despite Millennium's pledge to takes steps to control it.
"We not only get the short end of the stick, but we get the stick stuck in our eye," he said.
The protestors restated last week's demands that the commissioners revoke a shorelines permit for the project in light of revelations that Millennium may want to expand the terminal to handle as much as 60 tons of coal annually — more than 10 times the amount it stated in its permit application
If executed, those plans would make the Longview facility the biggest coal export terminal on the North American West Coast. Millennium, which is owned by Australian company Ambre Energy, plans to export the coal to Asia, mostly China.
"We've been waiting a week to see if there's any resolution," Gayle Kiser of Kelso told commissioners during their morning meeting. "We feel you were purposefully misled and I'm asking if you could please rescind the shoreline permit."
Sandra Davis called Millennium an "unscrupulous company who has lied to the county and lied to the state," and also asked commissioners to revoke the permit. "We need to start over," she said. "We need to have something better than coal."
Sonya Rowe, a retired college professor in West Virginia, warned elected officials that they need to pay attention to what local residents are saying about the coal terminal.
"Let them know that if they do not pay attention, they can find themselves out on their behinds," said Rowe, a Vancouver resident who joined the protest outside the administration building.
Tuesday, though, commissioners noted that the shorelines permit already had been appealed to the state Shorelines Hearing Board. Commissioner Raiter said commissioners have been told the county cannot legally revoke the permit — approved in November — once it's been appealed.
"We don't have the authority to rescind it," Raiter said after Tuesday's meeting.
Protesters urged county officials to ask the state's attorney general to investigate Millennium, but Raiter noted the attorney general's office already is aware of the issue.
Ron Marshall, the county's chief civil deputy prosecutor, said he and state officials have reviewed the matter and cannot find a way the county could call back the permit.
"There's no specific provision in the midst of a pending appeal to take it back," he said. State Department of Ecology officials also have reviewed the matter and agree the county has no role at this point, he said.
The Shorelines Hearings Board has "full authority" to deal with all of the Millennium issues, including questions about the company's truthfulness and long-term plans, Marshall added.
The state board can approve the permit, deny it outright or send it back to county commissioners for further review.
As such, Raiter said he and his fellow commissioners can't comment much on the permit because they may have to make another quasi-judicial ruling on the matter.
Millennium officials have denied being "disingenuous" about its plans, saying plans for a much bigger terminal were put on hold to focus on a the project as proposed — a 5.7 million ton a year facility.
Rail lines to the site would need to be dramatically upgraded and expanded to make the terminal bigger, and any plan to expand the facility would be subject to a separate permitting process.
Still, in its application for a county shorelines permit, a company memo showed officials tried to keep talk of expansion secret to avoid the perception it had deceived officials.