One year. One coal terminal. Zero progress.
That’s the beef of Millennium Bulk Terminals’ officials, who say they are frustrated that it’s taking so long to start the environmental review of their proposal to build a $643 million coal dock just west of Longview.
“Every month that goes by delays the creation of jobs and the tax revenue, but we’re eager to get the process started,” Millennium CEO Ken Miller said last week.
A year ago Saturday, Millennium officials filed permits to redevelop the site of the former Reynolds Metals aluminum plant into a terminal capable of handling 44 million tons of coal per year. The coal would originate in mines in Montana and Wyoming and would be bound for ports in Asia.
At completion, according to Millennium, the coal terminal would employ 135 full-time workers who would unload eight mile-long trains daily at a terminal that would generate millions of dollars in tax revenues for local government.
Regulators say they want to make sure they cover all of their bases in a process that will likely face legal challenges from both sides. But even environmentalists, who are demanding a thorough review of the impacts of coal dust and rail congestion, say they are anxious to move forward.
“I think the sooner the impacts of the project are disclosed, the sooner coal export will be rejected,” Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Portland-based Columbia Riverkeeper, said last week.
Millennium must obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology and Cowlitz County. The three agencies are working together, and regulators say that will streamline the process because Millennium doesn’t need to produce multiple environmental impact statements.
“It makes it much simpler for the applicant so they can review it all in one document,” Sally Toteff, Ecology’s southwest regional director, said.
At the end of this month, the three agencies will interview four consulting firms bidding to oversee the public scoping process of the project, which is when regulators identify the issues and major questions needed to be evaluated in an environmental impact study. Agency officials say they expect to make a hire in mid-March.
“Whenever we are in the role of being a lead agency, we strive to be thorough and rigorous in every endeavour. We need to be fair and thorough,” Toteff said.
Mike Wojotowicz, Cowlitz County’s director of building and planning, said permitting the Millennium project is taking no longer than other projects of similar scope, but the intense scrutiny has set a standard that could lengthen the process for other industrial projects.
“The tentacles this process has grown are unprecedented, and it will likely leave its imprint on future permitting for future generations,” he said.
In comparison, the EGT grain terminal at the Port of Longview, which accepts about one mile-long train daily from inland growers, needed only a few months to obtain building permits in 2009, according to county officials.
In the fall of 2010, Cowlitz County commissioners granted a building permit for Millennium to build a much smaller terminal. However, the company scrapped those plans and withdrew the permit after internal emails from its parent company, Australia-based Ambre Energy, revealed plans to build a much larger terminal.
If Millennium officials want an idea of what the next steps will look like, they need only to look to hearings held statewide about the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal near Bellingham. In seven meetings held in all corners of the state, agency officials heard public comment from thousands, which they are incorporating into their draft environmental impact statement.
Supporters and opponents expect a similar battle when agencies begin holding public hearings on the Millennium project in the summer.
“The impacts of coal export on the Columbia River, and the threat of coal trains through dozens of towns, will draw intense questions from a broad swath of people,” VandenHeuvel said.
Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for Seattle-based Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, said the long process is helping galvanize the coalition of industry, labor and transportation groups that support coal terminals. And while she’d like to see the review accelerated to generate jobs, she said she’s not surprised at the length of time.
“These scoping projects take a long time. Environmental review takes a long time. (Environmental impact statements) take a long time, and for a good reason,” Hennessey said.
The Gateway project, if approved, would be the largest coal terminal in North America, with a capacity of exporting 54 million tons of coal annually. It’s one of five terminals proposed in the Pacific Northwest, along with Millennium’s in Longview, two at Port Westward near Clatskanie and one at Coos Bay, Ore.
Several prominent officeholders, including Gov. John Kitzhaber, D-Ore., and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have called for a comprehensive review of the environmental impacts all the way from the mines to the shorelines of the terminals. Muffy Walker, chief of the Army Corps’ Seattle office, said the agency plans to consider each project individually for now, unless officials later determine they need to conduct the comprehensive study of all the proposed terminals, known as a programmatic review.
Millennium currently has 37 employees who are working to clean up the Reynolds site, which was contaminated for decades by the aluminum plant. Alcoa, which owns the land, is on the hook with regulators for the cleanup.
Miller said Millennium has hauled 150,000 tons of material off the site for the cleanup, which the company views as a separate project from the coal terminal. However, Millennium is also counting on revenue from coal exports to fund most of its operations, but Miller said he believes the market isn’t going away.
“We see this demand for the long term, and we just want to have the process move forward,” he said.