Nearly two dozen protestors greeted Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer Wednesday morning in Kelso during his stop to promote coal transport from his state through a proposed export terminal west of Longview.
It was an unprecedented visit for a sitting governor of another state to come to Cowlitz County in support of a project. It underscored the significance of the proposal from Millennium Bulk Logistics to build the first coal export terminal on the U.S. Pacific Coast.
At the meeting of Cowlitz County commissioners, Schweitzer told about 75 people that coal from the Powder River Basin in eastern Montana and Wyoming has provided power to the West Coast for decades. The terminal at the former Reynolds Metals aluminum site on the Columbia River would be an economic boost for Montana, he said.
"I will stipulate that coal is not necessarily the energy of the future. But I will remind you that 50 percent of the energy today (nationwide) is burned from coal," Schweitzer said.
"We have 56 counties in the state of Montana, but the most important county to the people of Montana today is Cowlitz County," Schweitzer added.
Schweitzer also met Wednesday afternoon with fellow Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire of Washington, who has not issued a formal statement about the project.
"I don't get the sense from Gov. Gregoire that she's against, or for, this project," he told The Billings (Mont.) Gazette following the meeting. "It's her opinion that the environmental requirements of Washington state have to be followed. I just want to make sure we in Montana understand what the requirements are."
Gregoire's office did not respond to calls for comment.
Opponents of the project, which include Northwest environmental groups and residents near the site, say they worry about the health dangers of coal dust and the environmental consequences of increased coal transport here and burning of it abroad. They said the governor of Montana should not interfere with a Cowlitz County issue.
About 20 people spoke during the meeting, which lasted just over an hour. No members of the public stood up to support the terminal.
The coal companies "are just trying to grab what they can, when they can," said Les Anderson, who lives less than a mile from the site in West Longview.
A coal facility is not the type of economic development the area needs, Anderson added.
Schweitzer, a Democrat elected in 2004, has emerged as one of the most high-profile proponents of the terminal. He attracted national attention during his speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and he was considered a possible nominee for President Barack Obama's cabinet.
Millennium, which is owned by Australian coal conglomerate Ambre Energy, plans to export as much as 5.7 million tons of coal annually from the Powder River Basin to China and other Asian countries. The region is home to one of the largest coal beds in the country, producing more than 450 million tons of coal annually.
Schweitzer toured the 416-acre West Longview site with Millennium officials Wednesday morning before arriving at the county administration building in Kelso. He shook hands with many of the protestors carrying signs outside the commissioners hearing room, then gave a 15-minute introductory talk before taking questions from the public.
Powder River basin coal is the cleanest-burning coal available, so replacing dirtier coal overseas to China could actually be a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, Schweitzer said. He said he respected the decisions of county and state officials in Washington, and he hoped to learn more about the state's permitting process during his visit and bolster the commissioners' support of the terminal.
In November, Cowlitz County commissioners unanimously approved a shoreline permit Millennium needs to build the facility, which the company says would employ 71 workers and create 120 construction jobs at the 416-acre site. The site's current tenant, Chinook Ventures, employs about 50 workers and is selling buildings on the site to Millennium. The land is still owned by Alcoa Inc.
Last month, a coalition of environmental groups appealed the commissioners' decision to the state Shoreline Hearings Board, saying the county had failed to evaluate properly the environmental effect of expanded coal transportation. The state's Department of Ecology also filed to intervene in the hearing because the agency could be asked to approve other permits for the facility, agency officials said.
The county also should consider the effect of the project on the potential to increase emissions of greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming, Ecology officials said.
The state's Shoreline Hearings Board will hear the appeal in April and will release a decision by the end of June.
Several opponents said Wednesday Schweitzer's primary concern was economic opportunity at the expense of the health and safety of residents in Cowlitz County.
"Commissioners, please don't put money ahead of the people of Longview and Cowlitz County," Bill Kasch of Longview told the three-member board.
Newly minted Commissioner James Misner, who was not in office during the November vote, said the Millennium project would bring much-needed jobs to the area.
"Last time I checked, people need money," he said.
Commissioner George Raiter said Schweitzer's visit likely raised awareness of the issue but probably didn't change any minds.
"If we're going to burn coal on the planet, we should keep it in the country," he said.