A study on the health impacts of the Longview coal terminal is nearing completion, and Millennium Bulk Terminals is determined to finish the study even as it faces two major challenges from the state that could undercut its $680 million project.
A steering committee of citizens tasked with shaping and approving the health impact assessment — the first of its kind in Cowlitz County — met for the first time in eight months on Wednesday to discuss how to deliver an easy-to-understand document to the public.
The non-binding, voluntary study isn’t tied to the permitting process. It will assess the potential health impacts of the terminal, drawing on data from an earlier 4,000-page environmental impact statement. The health study is based on 15 questions posed by the steering committee, which is comprised of people who support and oppose the project.
Wednesday’s steering committee meeting was held two weeks after the Department of Ecology dealt a potentially fatal blow to the project when it denied Millennium a key water quality permit. Separately, Millennium is appealing a decision from the state Department of Natural Resources to reject an aquatic lands sublease needed for the project. While Millennium appeals both state decisions, it’s moving forward with the health impact assessment and permitting with Cowlitz County.
State law allowed Millennium to contract directly with consultants to produce the $200,000 health impact assessment. The company says it has spent $15 million on environmental studies and permitting.
The steering committee asked consultants to answer questions about the project’s economic impact and about the health effects of coal dust, diesel exhaust from trains and increased emissions.
The study “should be something that anyone who lives here could pick up and understand,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, a health officer with Cowlitz County Health & Human Services. Rather than providing a comprehensive analysis, the study will serve as a “companion document” to Millennium’s environmental impact statement.
A draft of the health impact study will be publicly available on the Cowlitz County Building and Planning website by Nov. 10, said Nick Fazio, an assistant planner for the county.
The public will then have until Nov. 30 to submit written comments for the steering committee’s consideration.
However, responding to public comments could be difficult, said Elaine Placido, director of Cowlitz County Building and Planning. Millennium’s initial environmental review received more than 265,000 comments. And an additional 10,000 comments were submitted in response to its application for a shoreline permit.
“We don’t have the staff to respond to 10,000 comments,” Placido said.
The next steps for a team of county officials to finish reviewing a 120-page draft health study and prepare analysis for the steering committee, Placido said. The committee will produce a 20-page report summarizing the study’s findings.
Steering committee members will have about three or four weeks to review the draft before meeting for two eight-hour workshops in early December.
At Wednesday’s steering committee meeting, community member Diane Dick expressed concern that Millennium was allowed to contract directly with the firm that drafted the study.
“Even though it’s been said that it was normal procedure to have the applicant to write the report, I think this is bad practice,” she said. “Especially for a community group that’s trying to present an objective view.”
The only other community member to comment Wednesday was Stephen Chandler, a local physician, who argued in a letter that was read out loud that the proposed project has already had a negative impact on the community.
“The enmity and bitterness caused by this divisive issue has adversely affected our community’s health, fitness and wellness,” Chandler wrote. “Hope in the future has been worsened. I see this all around our community. Our deepwater port is calling for a different use and future.”
The coal terminal has been one of the most hotly-debated projects on the Columbia River since Millennium first applied for permits five years ago. It would create more than 1,000 construction jobs, 130 permanent jobs and $5.4 million in annual state and local taxes.
The project would fill 24 acres of wetlands, require 41.5 acres of dredging of the Columbia River bottom and drive 537 pilings into the river for a new trestle and docks, according to a state environmental impact statement. The terminal would add nearly 1,700 vessel transits to the Columbia River, a quarter of all freight traffic on the waterway.
The health impact assessment is expected to be complete by early next year.