After four hours of testimony Tuesday, Cowlitz County commissioners delayed a decision whether to allow an Australia-based company to build a coal export facility at the former Reynolds Metals site in Longview.
About 30 people, most of them opposed, spoke up about Millenium Bulk Logistics' proposal to haul coal from Wyoming to Longview and then export as much as 5 million tons annually to Asia, most of it to China. Millenium is the local subsidary of Ambre Energy of Australia, one of the world's largest coal companies.
About 90 people filled the commissioners hearing room, and many were forced to stand along the walls. A few dozen wore buttons with "Coal" crossed out.
Local citizens and environmental groups said the plan would pollute the area's air and water, contribute to global warming and ruin a prime site for industrial growth.
"I wonder if in fact the Columbia River isn't the biggest target in the world right now for energy corporations," said Vonda Kay Brock, a Longview resident who also was an opponent of a proposed liquified natural gas terminal on the lower river.
Added Gail Kaiser of Cowlitz County: "As a concerned citizen who's heard companies promise the moon in Cowlitz County, I've learned to take a measured approach. And so should you."
Millenium officials say the project would create 71 family-wage jobs — 20 more than employed by the site's current owner, Chinook Ventures — and 120 construction jobs.
"We are committed to providing more efficient energies with our coal resources," said Jeff Torkington, corporate executive officer of Ambre Energy North America.
Construction would generate $3.2 million in tax revenue for county and state governments, Millenium officials said. Annually, terminal operation would pump $1.6 million into the coffers of state and local governments, according to Millenium.
Millennium is planning to buy buildings and facilities on the 416-acre property from Chinook Ventures, a Canadian firm whose management of the site has been fraught with environmental problems. Millenium needs a county shorelines permit to replace dock pilings and upgrade an existing conveyor system at the old Reynolds smelter site, which produced aluminum for nearly 60 years.
If the county approves the permit, Millenium expects to start construction next month. Barring delays, Millenium hopes to start exporting coal by the end of 2011 or early 2012.
Commissioners George Raiter and Axel Swanson said they expect to issue a final decision on the permit next Tuesday. The decision can be appealed to the state Department of Ecology, commissioners said. Commissioner Mike Karnofski was out of town and did not attend the meeting. The Cowlitz County Building and Planning Department has recommended commissioners approve Millenium's application.
Environmental groups argued that export facility encourages burning of coal instead cleaner energy sources, thereby contributing to global warming.
"Coal in China equals pollution in Longview. That's a known fact," said Grant Sawyer, a Cowlitz County resident and member of the Sierra Club.
The county should require a full environmental review of the project before authorizing the permit, said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Portland-based Columbia Riverkeeper.
In advance of Tuesday's hearing, Riverkeeper released a blitz of literature opposing the project, saying "don't let Cowlitz County become the gateway for coal to China."
Citing a study by Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, Riverkeeper claimed that thousands of pounds of coal dust would blow off trains and into rivers and streams. BN officials had not returned Tuesday morning phone calls for comment about that claim. Riverkeeper also said that burning of coal in Asia already is a major source of toxic mercury fallout in the Pacific Northwest.
"Coal export requires a small work force and wastes hundreds of acres of waterfront property to store raw coal," according to the group. "The proposed coal export site has tremendous potential for thousands of jobs in light industrial and smart-tech growth instead of being mired in a single commodity, dirty export trade."
Millenium is seeking to create a 525,000-square-foot storage area, which could hold 300,000 metric tons of coal. The company also plans to repair the existing dock, replacing creosote pilings with steel, and build a new conveyor system.
Millenium will also import cement and alumina, the raw material used to make aluminum. Company officials said they would clean up the site, contaminated by decades of aluminum making, and get it ready for industrial use.
Canadian company Chinook Ventures bought the buildings on the site out of bankruptcy in 2004 and said it planned to clean up the site and build a private port.
Several speakers told commissioners Chinook made similar cleanup promises but ended up causing more problems instead.
Chinook incurred nearly $300,000 in fines from state, federal and county regulators for failing to obtain permits for the work, including a $40,000 fine for spilling 30 to 50 cubic yards of petcoke into the Columbia River in February.
This summer, regulators threatened to evict Chinook and Alcoa Inc., which owns the land, if they did not apply obtain permits for the work Chinook was doing on the site.
"We've had a really tough go with this site the last couple years. It's been nothing but problems, and it's still a problem," Commissioner Swanson said.