OLYMPIA — Along with more jobs, a proposed Columbia River coal terminal would bring more cancer, traffic, pollution and noise to Southwest Washington, according to the state Department of Ecology.
The agency recently released the long-awaited environmental review for the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals project, a 190-acre Longview facility where workers would transfer coal from trains to outbound ships. The hefty two-volume report will help public agencies decide whether to grant the more than 20 permits required for the project.
The review authors found that the terminal would have “unavoidable impacts” along the Columbia River, according to an April 28 DOE press release. Building the terminal would involve filling wetlands, dredging the riverbed, injuring fish and increasing production of harmful greenhouse gasses. It would also increase the chances of vessel collisions and oil spills, according to the report.
The study outlines 30 steps MBT could take to partially offset the negative effects of the project. However, the authors cautioned that there would be no way to mitigate for some of the consequences of building the terminal.
Millennium Bulk Terminals is a subsidiary of Lighthouse Resources, Inc. (formerly part of the Australian company, Ambre Energy). The company first proposed building a coal terminal in 2010, in hopes of capitalizing on the growing demand for coal in Asia.
Under the proposed plan, the facility would occupy part of the 540-acre site of the former Reynolds Aluminum smelter, on the shore of the Columbia River. Each day, trains would deliver an estimated 122,000 tons of coal from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. In Longview, workers would transfer the coal to storage facilities or ocean-going ships bound for Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries.
MBT officials say the project would take advantage of existing rail and shipping infrastructure, but they would have to build two new docks, as well as trestles, additional railroad tracks, conveyors, storage areas and other components.
As the largest coal export terminal on the continent, MBT would move about 44 million metric tons of coal annually. That would add 16 more daily train trips through the region, and increase ship transits on the Lower Columbia by 1,680 annually, DOE found.
According to MBT, construction would take place between 2018 and 2024, and the facility would be operating at full capacity by 2028.
After the draft report was released in spring 2016, scientists spent a year reviewing and responding to public comments.
Proponents said the terminal would alleviate Cowlitz County’s high unemployment rate, enable U.S. coal producers to compete for a share of the huge Asian coal market and diversify the state’s economy. MBT claims the terminal would provide about 1,350 temporary construction jobs, and 135 permanent “family-wage jobs.”
Despite the promise of badly-needed jobs and tax revenue, the project has faced considerable opposition from groups who fear the terminal could pose environmental, health and safety threats. Opponents of the terminal say it’s a bad idea to invest in a limited natural resource that will likely be subject to more restrictions in the future. They also dislike the idea of building a facility that would contribute to one of the major culprits of the climate change crisis.
“We received an unprecedented 267,000 comments, so it was clear to us that people are really interested in this project,” Cowlitz County Building and Planning Director Elaine Placido said in the press release.
More than 214,600 people sent in mass letters or emails during a 45-day comment period. About 600 expressed general support for the terminal. Around 170,100 commenters expressed general opposition. Others commented at meetings, or sent in individual letters.
MBT anticipates loading about 840 ships per year, many of which would pass through the mouth of the Columbia River. Some of these would be the super-sized “Panamax” ships. Each would likely require the services of a bar pilot, and a place to anchor. Experts believe local authorities could manage the new traffic, but they said the higher number of vessels on the river would increase the number of collisions, groundings, fires and other boat-related emergencies by about three incidents per year.
Coal is a combustible material that can spontaneously ignite, so there is an inherent risk of a fire on any of the roughly 70 ships that would pass through the lower Columbia each month. While the overall risk is still “relatively low,” fires, collisions and other incidents would increase the chances of an oil spill or other hazardous materials incident. Such incidents would place a higher demand on local fire authorities, researchers said.
The increased vessel traffic would also contribute more fuel and other pollutants to the Columbia. Additionally, the ships would likely strike some seals and sea lions. Noise from the vessels could also disturb the animals.
Construction of the terminal would contribute to a long tradition of filling in Longview-area wetlands. Researchers estimate this would result in the loss of about 24 acres of wetlands. There would only be a low risk of solvents, grease, paints, and other contaminants seeping into the water table, because much of the ground would be covered by a cement pad. However, stormwater would wash some pollutants into the river. And boat traffic could cause some shoreline erosion, with potential consequences for water quality and wildlife.
While MBT could do much to prevent pollution under normal operating conditions, the potential for harmful spills would increase significantly if rail cars collided or derailed.
Individually, the polluted runoff, increased coal dust, heavier traffic and fish stranding caused by the wakes of large ships probably wouldn’t have unavoidable consequences for fish, researchers said. Together, they could affect fish behavior or health, potentially leading to smaller fish populations. Researchers also noted that increased train traffic might make it more difficult for Native Americans to reach some traditional fishing grounds.
Water turbulence, construction noise, fuel leaks and coal spills could all have a “direct impact” on fish, according to the study. In water, coal can reduce visibility, raise water temperatures, inhibit plant growth, and clog the respiratory and digestive systems of aquatic animals.
Toxic pollution from the diesel train exhaust researchers warned “... is expected to cause an unavoidable increase in cancer risk rates in a neighborhood along the rail line in Longview.”
Scientists used computer modeling to estimate how the train pollution would affect the number of cancer cases near the MBT site. At peak production levels, there would be an increase of 10 cancers per million people in “most of Longview south of Ocean Beach Highway as well as a portion of Kelso…” In a low-income neighborhood close to the site, the number of cases would increase by 30 to 50 cancers per million people.
The authors compared living near the site to living on the side of a busy freeway. According to the study, the emissions from an estimated 16 train trips per day would be equivalent to “... approximately 1,100 diesel truck trips per day along the same segment.”
The train traffic could create other hazards. Statewide, the average number of train accidents would go from about 50 per year to almost 62 per year — an increase of about 22 percent. About half of these would involve trains loaded with coal. Researchers concluded that this would cause an “an unavoidable and significant adverse impact on rail safety.”
Since coal dust can disperse anywhere along the travel routes of the boats and trains, opponents worry that it could have consequences for communities all along the Columbia River.
MBT would use sprinklers and several other means to control the coal dust. However, some dust would still escape whenever coal was transported, moved, or stored in the open.
According to the study, “The movement of coal into and around the project area, creation of large stockpiles of coal, and use of open conveyors could generate approximately 14.6 tons of coal particles and fugitive coal dust per year” at maximum operating capacity.
Typical levels of coal dust would not exceed dust-control standards. However, the amount of dust would increase if train or ship collisions, spills or other mishaps occurred.
The substantial increase in train, boat and diesel truck trips through the region would create more air pollution and greenhouse gasses, according to the report. During 2028, the first year when the terminal would be operating at full capacity, MBT activities could contribute up to 3.76 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses to the environment.
Study authors concluded that MBT could offset its contributions to global warming through a variety of mitigation measures, including no-idling policies, fuel efficiency training for drivers, and investments in clean equipment. DOE said the company would have to write a comprehensive plan as a condition of opening the terminal.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release its own environmental review later this year. Once both reviews are complete, MBT will have to seek permits from ten separate agencies. In the meantime, the company may need to commission additional studies, and work on developing various plans for preventing pollution and health risks and responding to potential disasters.
“This comprehensive study is now a resource for future decision-makers, the public and Millennium,” Sally Toteff, director of Ecology’s Southwest Region said in the press release. “The study will inform local, state, and federal agencies that will be acting on Millennium’s permit applications.”