Cowlitz County officials say the time has passed to file formal challenges of a massive environmental study of the Longview coal terminal. The 11,000-page environmental impact statement written by the state and county drew a record number of public comments from both sides of the coal debate.
But, in a big surprise, the county said a deadline for appealing the EIS expired quietly Friday afternoon with no formal challenges from either side.
Under county code, any appeals of the EIS would have had to coincide with an appeal of the terminal’s first permit, the critical areas permit issued in July. A deadline on appealing the permit and the EIS ended Friday.
The “appeal ship has sailed,” said Ron Malin, senior environmental planner for Cowlitz County. While opponents disagree with this interpretation, Malin said all avenues to appeal the adequacy of the EIS have been exhausted.
And without any appeals to the critical area permit, Millennium now has officially obtained its first permit for the $680 million project.
“We are delighted the permit and the Final Environmental Impact Statement will move forward without challenge,” said Bill Chapman, CEO and president of Millennium. “This confirms the project meets Washington’s strict environmental standards. We are grateful for the outpouring of local community support that has generated a momentum toward construction.”
Yet opponents to the project with Power Past Coal Coalition disagree with the county’s interpretation of the law. They say they could appeal the merits of the state-county EIS at a future date while appealing another permit. The coalition could also challenge a forthcoming federal EIS of the project from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The critical area permit is just one of eight permits the project needs from the county. Millennium has yet to receive the most significant permit from the county: a shoreline permit, which usually is accompanied by a multi-day public hearing. Overall the terminal needs 23 permits from local, state and federal agencies.
“We have not wavered in our opposition to the coal export terminal. I want to make that abundantly clear. There are multiple opportunities for other agencies to weigh in and for the coalition to appeal any permits that should be issued in the future,” said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, organizer with Columbia Riverkeeper, which is part of the Power Past Coal Coalition.
“Our biggest goal is to ensure that state agencies listen to the number of people who voiced opposition and actually deny permits rather than issue them and leaving us with the option to appeal,” Zimmer-Stucky said. The coalition submitted 250,000 anti-coal comments to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office earlier this year.
If built, Millennium would operate one of the biggest coal terminals in North America. It would increase U.S. coal exports by 40 percent, sending 44 million tons of coal to Asia every year.
The project would increase greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 2 million metric tons annually, according to the EIS. Opponents argue that would be a step backwards for fighting climate change. They also point to parts of the EIS showing that trains carrying coal to the terminal could increase the cancer risk rate by 10 percent over background county levels for residents living in the low-income Highlands neighborhood. (That statistic is contested by Millennium and BNSF Railway.)
But Millennium supporters say emissions could be mitigated and controlled by strict regulations. Plus the project could generate 1,000 construction jobs, 130 permanent jobs and $5.4 million in annual state and local taxes, according to the EIS, offering a much-needed economic boost for the county.