“We Can Do Better.” The oft-repeated phrase has invoked passion and vitriol on both sides of the coal debate since Millennium Bulk Terminals first proposed its mega-terminal more than five years ago. But as the $680 million project now stands in peril, facing serious hurdles from two state agencies, the phrase begs the question: Can we do better? And if so, how?
Ecology’s decision last week to deny a water quality certification for Millennium was a lightning rod throughout the community. Dejected coal supporters worry about what message this could send to other industries interested in locating in Washington. How will Cowlitz County will claw its way out of the economic doldrums?
“I wonder where my boys will work when they are ready. … It used to be right out of high school, you could get a good-paying job at a mill. Those opportunities are being reduced, so we have an entire generation now of people who are underemployed and without hope,” said Mike Wallin, real estate broker and City of Longview councilman.
Yet environmentalists say this is a critical moment when the community could truly step away from polluting industries into a brighter, cleaner economic future.
“I think what we need to do now is kind of admit that coal is probably dead, and I think our local economic development council, and our elected officials have to regroup and reset their sights and try to look to the future,” said Gary Lindstrom, Longview activist and retired director of marketing at the Port of Longview.
A chilling effect?
Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) said Ecology’s decision would have a “chilling effect” on other prospective industrial projects. He and other coal proponents argued the regulatory process isn’t allowing the state to take advantage of a multimillion-dollar federal project to deepen the Columbia River. Other proponents said companies will pass on Washington because of the drawn-out permitting process. Millennium first applied for permits more than five years ago.
“It’s going to be tough to tell people to come here and bring your factory or build your project when you don’t know how long it’s going to take. It could be 3, 5, 6 years and then at the end it’s a toss of the coin whether you’ll get it or not,” said Sen. Dean Takko (D-Longview).
Dennis Weber, Cowlitz County commissioner, echoed the sentiments among many Millennium supporters that the company hasn’t been treated fairly.
“Why would industries come if we can’t promise them that they’ll be treated fairly and with consistency and predictability?” Weber said.
Cowlitz Economic Development President Ted Sprague said he’s been answering questions for the last week from prospective industries wary of what the coal decision could mean for their projects.
What was particularly concerning for some coal supporters is that Ecology’s reasoning for denying the permit could be applied to almost any major industrial project. In issuing her decision, Ecology Director Maia Bellon highlighted nine significant adverse impacts, many of which — such as vessel traffic, rail transportation, air quality — have more to do with the massive size of the project, not the commodity itself.
“What’s concerning with Ecology’s announcement from Director Bellon is that it could have been about any development or any commodity,” Wallin said.
Wallin and others said using that framework of analysis for every industrial project could stymie any development.
“If you apply the Department of Ecology’s justifications for denial, such as dredging in the Columbia River, driving pilings, or increased rail traffic, etc. to all businesses and ports along the Columbia River, there would be no expansion of current industries or new business opportunities anywhere along the Columbia or the I-5 corridor,” said Mike Bridges of the Kelso-Longview Building Trades Council.
But Lindstrom, the retired port marketing director, pointed out that’s it’s unlikely that most industrial projects will rise to the mammoth scale of Millennium’s proposal. Most industrial projects would be handling a much smaller volume of product, so their environmental impacts would be smaller, he said.
The terminal would move 44 million metric tons of coal annually — making it one of the largest coal terminals in North America. Coal would be piled eight stories high and 50 football fields wide, according to Ecology. The project alone would boost U.S. coal exports by 40 percent.
The terminal would add nearly 1,700 vessel transits to the Columbia River, a quarter of all freight traffic on the waterway. Sixteen trains per day carrying Rocky Mountain coal would worsen traffic congestion during peak commute times and could affect emergency responders, Ecology concluded.
A better quality of life?
While coal supporters worried about how this could impact future projects, some environmentalists thought Ecology’s decision would actually send a positive message to other companies.
“I think having these fossil fuel projects here or having them being supported here has given the wrong message to businesses (and) industries that are looking for places with good quality of life, both to do business here and for the employees to work and live here,” said Diane Dick, activist and member of Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community.
“I think this (decision) is a positive message that we are forward-looking and that we value our environment and we value good quality of life,” Dick added.
Economic development specialists have long pointed to building quality of life as a way to attract and retain companies. For Longview oncologist Stephen Chandler, Ecology’s decision was a win for that effort.
“Cowlitz County has some of the poorest health statistics in the state, and we have been hurting for a long time,” Chandler said. The county shouldn’t be adding “anything that might worsen that or has known sources of hazards” that could be a detriment to community health.
Beyond fossil fuels?
The Millennium decision came on the heels of the state shoreline hearings board’s reversal of two permits needed for Kalama methanol project. That has some observers asking whether the county can ever get a fossil fuel project permitted. Yet Sen. Takko said we can’t write off a legal commodity, and he encouraged the county to continue evaluating projects based on their individual merits.
Sprague, of the economic development council, said he would continue to support any major industrial commodity serious about building in Cowlitz County.
“Steel, forest products industries, higher tech manufacturing, plastics – there’s a myriad of different types of companies looking at our area. I know fossil-fuel companies have gotten all the attention recently, but there’s other types out there,” Sprague said.
Commissioner Weber suggested a four-year university could stimulate economic growth, although he acknowledged that getting state backing for the endeavor may be far-fetched.
Environmentalists see this as a moment when the community should finally step away from fossil fuels. Sandy Davis, member of Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, pointed to recent developments such as the cross-laminated timber factory in Spokane Valley and a Facebook data center in Prineville, Ore. as examples of where our county should develop.
“We need to start thinking beyond the box of these fossil-fuel industries and go with what the future is going to bring,” Davis said.
Many people encouraged economic development officials to more aggressively market the county to other industries.
“We need to have the creative and imaginative type of thinking. We need to be to advertising throughout the world that we have a deep-water port with 400 acres and a working town that knows about mills, and a community college here,” Chandler said.
Others said it was time for local leaders to imagine something beyond coal and fossil fuels.
“We are looking forward. We ask Cowlitz County and local businesses to come together with us to develop ethical, environmentally sensitive business opportunities that will create jobs and economic stability long after Millennium has moved on,” said Bill Iyall, chairman of the Cowlitz Tribe.