Thousands weigh in on coal export plan

SEATTLE — Regulators have received an unprecedented number of public comments on a disputed proposal to export millions of tons of coal to Asia from a facility along the Columbia River in Washington.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Washington’s Ecology Department and Cowlitz County are preparing to sift through more than 163,000 comments to decide which environmental effects should be reviewed.

“This obviously is more comments than we’ve had for most projects we’ve been involved in,” said Ecology spokeswoman Linda Kent. “What I’m hearing is that they haven’t seen this level before.”

Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview, owned by Ambre Energy and Arch Coal Inc., wants to build and operate a $650 million terminal at Longview to export coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia. The coal would be carried on trains to the dock, which would ultimately be able to handle 44 million metric tons of coal a year.

It’s one of three coal-export docks proposed in Washington and Oregon. The others are projects near Bellingham and Boardman, Ore.

Millennium officials have said the Longview facility would create jobs and generate millions during construction and through yearly state and local tax revenues. The terminal, once fully operational, would produce 300 direct and indirect permanent jobs.

The scoping comment period ends Nov. 18 and is only the first step in a lengthy, years-long process to determine the project’s environmental effects. Such a review is required before many local, state and federal permits can be approved. The county and state is conducting one review, while the army corps is doing a separate one.

Five public meetings held throughout the state drew thousands of people, and many businesses, groups, legislators and cities throughout the region have weighed in.

Environmental groups and others say they want to make sure that a full range of impacts are studied, from the time the coal is mined in the Rockies to its travels on trains to Washington to its ultimate burning for electricity in Asia.

“These proposals touch so many lives. You have trains going through community. Coal dust coming off the cars. And you have the problem of climate change that concerns a lot of people in Washington state,” said Kerry McHugh, a spokeswoman for the Washington Environmental Council.

The National Park Service, the governors of Oregon and Washington and others have asked regulators to look at the cumulative effects of proposed projects in Washington and Oregon and to consider the impacts beyond the two states.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups have asked for a narrower focus, saying there’s no precedent for such a far-reaching analysis of coal exports from the Northwest to other parts of the world.

Last July, Ecology said it would consider a sweeping look at the Gateway Pacific terminal coal-export dock proposed near Bellingham, including train traffic and the global-warming effects of burning the exported coal in Asia.

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