The state Department of Ecology announced the study on Wednesday, which will be performed while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County also examine the local environmental impact of exporting coal through the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham.
This is the latest episode in a protracted debate over whether the state should host export terminals and tracks for trains hauling millions of tons of coal from Montana and Wyoming and destined to Asia.
Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview is also seeking coal exports, but the study announced Wednesday does not impact that proposal and would require a separate study, said Josh Baldi, regional administrator the state Ecology department.
A port terminal in Morrow, Ore., is also proposing to export coals.
Those proposals have drawn sharp opposition from some elected officials in Washington and Oregon as well as environmental groups, which had been lobbying for environmental impact studies on coal exports. They worry about increased pollution from coal dust, traffic congestion and climate change impacts from burning the fuel.
"This scope is a reflection of Northwest values - the depth and breadth of the scope is absolutely on target and appropriate given the impacts this project would have on our way of life," said Cesia Kearns, campaign director for the Power Past Coal campaign, a group fighting the coal proposal, in a statement.
The coal industry and its backers have pushed aggressively for the new ports, arguing that they could help spur new jobs in parts of the country that are struggling economically. They said Wednesday's decision also treats coal differently from other commodities that move through Washington ports and suggested the state is going beyond its responsibility.
"This decision has the potential to alter the Northwest's long and historic commitment to expanding trade, which today supports 4 in every 10 jobs in Washington state," said Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, in a statement.
Burling Northern Santa Fe, which operates the train tracks crossing Washington, also opposed the decision.
"We are disappointed the state Department of Ecology has chosen to depart from the stringent, well-established process followed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and instead set such a broad, precedent-setting scope that encompasses the entire state and beyond in an attempt to determine the global impacts of a railroad spur serving an industrial area in Northwest Washington," said spokeswoman Courtney Wallace.
The coal terminals proposed for Washington state would ship a projected 110 million tons of coal to Asia each year, with the majority going through the Bellingham port. Coal exports hit record levels last year, even as domestic markets for the fuel have contracted due to competition from cheap natural gas and emissions restrictions for coal-burning power plants.
The environmental impact study would be ready for public comment in two years and would serve to inform the permitting process, Baldi said.
Ultimately, the permitting for the terminal, which is years away, would be up to Ecology, the Whatcom County Council and the Corps.
Environmental groups had been disappointed that the Corps had declined to do a broad study on coal exports from Western United States, citing limits in their responsibility.
"It's tremendously exciting," said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. Carlyle said the state was "stepping up to fill the void" left by federal officials.
In June, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against Burlington Northern Santa Fe in federal court in Seattle over coal train dust that blows off trains into Washington rivers and the Puget Sound.
The lawsuit said the railway sends an average of four trains or 480 open-top rail cars through Washington each day carrying coal from mines in Wyoming and Montana to Canada or to the only remaining coal-fired power plant in Washington at Centralia.
Reach Manuel Valdes at http://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes
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