RSSConflicted Over Coal
For a community so desperate for jobs, but also burdened with high levels of industrial pollution already, the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export project poses many tough questions. Will it clog our air and streams with dust and our streets with freight trains? How would such a massive project affect the image our community? Will it be a steady employer? Or, as coal critics say, can we do better? Over the coming weeks and months, we will explore these and other questions in an occasional series we're calling "Conflicted over Coal."
Millennium Bulk Terminals is proposing to build a $600 million terminal west of Longview to export 44 million tons of coal annually, an amount that would make it one of the largest such facilities in North America.
The terminal would be a major shot in the arm for the area’s construction industry and its tax and employment base, and Millennium has promised to take steps to control coal dust and avoid traffic congestion.
But the proposal sparked an immediate attack from environmentalists, who raised the spectre of coal dust drifting over the community and traffic snarls caused by the mile-long trains that would deliver coal to the terminal daily.
It will be several months before Cowlitz County commissioners make any decision on the newly proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals coal terminal, officials said Thursday.
Millennium filed an application for a county shoreline permit for the project at 9 a.m. Thursday. That begins the review process, said Building and Planning Director Mike Wojtowicz. Given the complexity of the project, it could be six months or more before the matter comes before commissioners for a final decision, he said.
Cowlitz commissioners were limited in what they could say because the permit will eventually come before them for a quasi-judicial hearing and decision, said Commissioner George Raiter.
Local government planners are developing a $200 million rail expansion plan to accommodate thousands of unit trains expected annually to go the proposed Millennium coal terminal west of Longview.
The plan likely includes a new vehicular road overpass near the intersection of Oregon Way and Industrial Way, a possible second rail crossing over the Cowlitz River and a possible second line of tracks through the Port of Longview industrial corridor to handle mile-long trains bound for the EGT grain terminal and Millennium.
In addition, planners hope to divert longer trains serving the coal terminal through port property so they won’t block busy arterial streets at the south end of Longview.
Conservation groups say they are gearing up for a fight to stop Millennium Bulk Terminal’s proposed $600 million coal terminal west of Longview, while local officials say they are excited that it would give a much-needed boost to the economy.
Gayle Kiser, president of citizens’ group Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, said coal terminal opponents are planning informational meetings about the company’s proposed project. She said she’s skeptical that Millennium will be able to deliver on its promises of economic development.
“After dealing with them before, I don’t trust their numbers,” she said.
If local planners have their way, motorists on Oregon Way in Longview will one day to look down at the Industrial Way intersection and see freight trains passing underneath.
This overpass is the lynchpin of an emerging, $200 million plan to upgrade the region's aging rail network to accommodate industrial growth.
Officials say the overpass and rail plan are vital to prevent massive traffic tie-ups at rail crossings, especially now that Millennium Bulk Terminals has plans for a 44 million ton coal export terminal west of Longview. The terminal would require 16 train trips, each a mile long, to pass through the Longview industrial corridor daily.
In a mere four years, China's booming economy has transformed the nation from net exporter of coal into a monster importer that can support multiple coal terminals proposed in the Pacific Northwest, industry analysts say.
Last year, China imported 182 million metric tons of coal, surpassing Japan as the world's largest coal importer. That amount is more than the capacity of four existing coal terminals in Alaska and British Columbia and five proposed Pacific Northwest terminals combined — including one proposal in Longview and two near Clatskanie.
China consumes about half of the coal burned annually worldwide, according to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And analysts don't expect a drop off any time soon.
As far as government regulators are concerned, grain dust floating over the Port of Longview is no different from dust that might blow off coal piles at the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals plant west of town.
Both grain and coal are classified as "particulates" — a broad category of chemicals, dirt, dust and other airborne material. In the government's eyes, issuing permits to allow emissions of wheat is the same as permits for coal.
"The dust off (coal) piles, in terms of air quality, is no different than the dust off a large grain pile or dust from a haul road," said Wess Safford, a permit engineer for the Vancouver-based Southwest Clean Air Agency.
Here are the three stages of receiving, storing and shipping coal planned for the Millennium Bulk terminals proposed export terminal.
Unloading rail cars
- When coal rail cars arrive, they will be pushed into an enclosed building.
- Cars will be wheeled onto a "rotary dumper," which grips the cars with two steel rings and tips them over sideways, causing the coal to pour into a conveyor below ground level.
- As it is dumped, the coal is sprayed with water to reduce dust.
- Cars are rolled out to make way for the next cars.
Concerns over coal dust have led to recent backlash against the terminals at Port Westward, including demands for further study from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and a move to by potential neighbor Portland General Electric to block one of the projects.
Steve Corson, spokesman for PGE, said the energy company fears coal dust from Kinder Morgan's proposed coal terminal could damage PGE's Port Westward natural-gas fired power generating operations, which gulp large amounts of air for combustion. PGE engineers evaluated the impacts of the coal terminal using confidential information obtained from Kinder Morgan in hopes of subleasing land at Port Westward, Corson said.
"We reviewed it from an engineering perspective and felt it wasn't compatible," Corson said. "We're not making a broad public policy statement about coal here. That's not our intention. For us, it comes down to operational concerns in the terms of our lease."
The exploding Asian coal market could cause massive rail line congestion in the Pacific Northwest, disrupting grain, freight and passenger trains and adding to congestion in several cities along the way, according to a conservation group’s study released Wednesday that calls for more federal oversight of six proposed coal export terminals.
“It’s a huge, huge increase in volume like we’ve never seen in this part of the world,” said study author Terry Whiteside, of Whiteside and Associates in Billings, Mont. If all the terminals are built, 170 million tons of Wyoming and Montana coal would be transported annually through the region by 2022, up from 12 million tons today, he said.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe officials, though, call the report flawed and said they’ll be able to fully accommodate all customers, including coal terminals.
BILLINGS, Mont. — Montana's largest city may be one of the last places anyone would expect to find opposition to six coal terminals proposed in the Pacific Northwest.
Coal and rail support hundreds of high-paying jobs and generate millions in tax revenue in the southeastern part of Big Sky country. In Billings, new building facades, landscaping and other aesthetics of a now-vibrant downtown were made possible by taxes from high-value railroad property.
Even so, reports of the possible quadrupling of coal train traffic to serve the coal terminals, including one in Longview and two near Clatskanie, have residents worried. Without an adequate plan to alleviate traffic congestion, Billings risks a piece of its high quality of life, residents say.