National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Coal export plans stir up dust in Pacific Northwest

By Charles Taylor


Photo courtesy of Tri-City Herald

Madeleine Brown of Richland, Wash. rallies protesters Oct. 1 in Franklin County, Wash. who are concerned about a proposed coal export terminal 180 miles away in Cowlitz County. Later that day, the third of five statewide hearings was held on the Millennium Bulk Terminals project.

Demand for coal to generate power in Asia is creating an opportunity and a dilemma for the counties in the Pacific Northwest where several coal export facilities have been proposed.

Proponents tout the creation of “family wage” jobs and economic development. Those opposed say that risks to the environment — even hundreds of miles away from the planned sites and thousands of miles from where the coal will be burned — outweigh potential benefits.

Cowlitz and Whatcom counties in Washington and Morrow County, Ore. are all in the midst of efforts by companies to build terminals within their borders.  Coal arriving by rail from Wyoming and Montana would move through facilities in Washington and Oregon, and eventually be shipped across the Pacific Ocean.

In Whatcom County (pop. 201,000), it’s an issue that could affect the outcome of the upcoming County Council election on Nov. 5.  Four of the county’s seven council seats could change occupants, and a new majority could decide the fate of the Gateway Pacific coal terminal, according to Todd Donovan, a University of Western Washington professor and political analyst. 

Pacific International Terminals, Inc. has proposed building a “multi-commodity” export facility that could ship up to 48 million tons of coal and would be the biggest facility of its kind on the West Coast. The company says it will create 1,250 permanent jobs when fully operational and generate nearly $140 million a year of economic activity in northwest Washington. The terminal ultimately needs County Council approval of various local permits.

 “They’re elected to four-year terms, so these are some of the people that will sooner or later be making that call,” Donovan said. In 2015, the other three commissioners’ terms will end. Final permits for the project aren’t expected to be issued until 2016 at the earliest.

Sentiments are running high among the electorate on both sides of the issue. A series of seven meetings that concluded in January on the scope of the project’s environmental impact statement (EIS) generated 125,000 comments to the state’s Department of Ecology, according to Larry Altose, a spokesman for the ecology department’s northwest region.

And intensity of interest in Gateway Pacific has injected an unusually large amount of cash into this election. “Two to four years ago, running for County Council, you might raise $30,000,” Donovan said. “Now you’ve got candidates, one guy’s already well above $100,000.” Contributions from outside the county are “10 times” more than usual for council races, he added.

“We would not normally see national firms coming and investing in these races. So that’s just completely off the charts.”  More than $1 million has flowed into the races, according to news reports, in which eight candidates are vying for four seats.

The widespread interest in the project is due, at least in part, to the Department of Ecology’s broadening the purview of potential impacts to be considered substantially beyond just the host county. It also sought input from counties along the rail lines that will feed the terminals and on issues such as how burning coal in Asia affects the global environment.

“That’s a choice that the state of Washington made and not a choice that the two counties have made in doing their environmental reviews,” said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties.


Illustration courtesy of Ambre Energy, Inc.

In Morrow County, Ore., Ambre Energy proposes building transfer facilities to move coal 219 miles along the Columbia River to a port about 50 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.

 “The interest is regional,” Altose said, which is why the counties chose to partner with the state in evaluating impacts. Input-seeking “scoping” meetings were held as far away as Spokane County, about 250 miles away, because it’s along the likely rail alignment. Federal permits also will be needed.

Whatcom County candidates haven’t stated their views on the project, because they’ve been advised not to stake out public positions on an issue they will have to vote on in a “semi-judicial” role as county commissioners, Donovan said. But he believes “there’s probably a majority on the council right now that would be sympathetic to the terminal.”

Interest has also been high in Cowlitz County (pop. 102,000), where Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview LLC wants to build a $643 million coal terminal along the Columbia River at the site of a former aluminum smelter in the southwest part of the state. Scoping meetings for that project have already generated more than 70,000 comments, said Linda Kent, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman for the southwest region, and the comment period doesn’t close until Nov. 18.

 “This is new,” she said. “We’ve been involved in environmental reviews for large and controversial proposals that generated significant public interest in the past, but this is the first time we’ve seen this level of public interest.”

Not all such projects planned for the Pacific Northwest, however, have stirred public outcry or opposition. Ambre Energy has selected Morrow County in eastern Oregon, population 10,000, as the site for its Morrow Pacific project. It would receive coal shipments by rail from the Intermountain West and store it temporarily for transfer to barges for transloading to ships bound for Asian ports.

Residents and the three-member County Court are all for the project, said Carla McLane, the county’s planning director. The facility would be built on the site of a coal-fired power plant that’s slated to close in 2020, shedding 125 jobs. Morrow Pacific would create 35 family wage jobs, which McLane defined as jobs paying more than $59,000 a year. Those jobs, like ones at the existing power plant, also go to residents of neighboring Gilliam and Umatilla counties.

“We’ve looked at the proposal that this company has come forth with, and said they’re doing it the Oregon way,” she said. “Oregon has always been a green state. We’ve always kind of embraced this ‘protect the natural beauty of Oregon.’ Well, they’ve proposed a project that does that. It’s a covered, enclosed system so it protects the environment and it protects people and it provides good jobs.”

And since the generating station already receives coal deliveries, that would be nothing new for the county. Further, the alternative is not an attractive one.

“This product is going to get sold, whether it goes through harbors in Oregon or Washington, or in Canada, it’s going to get sold to the end purchaser,” McLane said. “So why should we give up that revenue, the taxes, and the jobs to Canada, when one way or another this product is going to go to friendly nations in the Pacific Rim?”