Updated June 21:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will not study the potential environmental impact of having coal trains pass through communities along railroad lines on their way to three Northwest export terminals.
The news that the federal agency’s regulatory authority was confined to the area around three proposed shipping facilities was delivered Monday by Jennifer Moyer, acting chief of the Corps regulatory program, to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
Moyer submitted a 10-page report to explain the agency’s stance that included this statement: “Many of the activities of concern to the public, such as rail traffic, coal mining, shipping coal outside of U.S. territory, and the ultimate burning of coal overseas, are outside the Corps’ control and responsibility for the permit applications related to the proposed projects. We note that coal mining in the Powder River Basin has been occurring for many years, with that coal being shipped by rail to many different destinations. The potential change in rail traffic patterns is beyond the control and expertise of the Corps, and requires no involvement from the Corps.”
Union Pacific Railroad carries products on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, but has no trains currently carrying coal through the gorge. With proposals for export terminals in St. Helens and Coos Bay now off the table, the company has only the possibility for the immediate future of delivering coal for Ambre Energy from the Powder Basin in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming to the Coyote Island Terminal LLC at the Port of Morrow in Boardman.
Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad currently operates on the Washington side of the Columbia and up to four of the 35-40 trains that pass through the area each day carry coal. That number could go up by 18 trains per day hauling coal if projects are approved for Longview and Cherry Point near Bellingham.
The Corps’ position has drawn fire from conservation groups and government leaders who want the environmental assessment to encompass populated areas along rail lines where there could be more traffic congestion at train crossings and pollution from coal dust.
Opponents also want consideration given to the potential increase in global warming that could result from the U.S. shipping millions of metric tons of coal to Asia each year. They have called for more extensive studies of increased barge traffic on the Columbia, potential water contamination, and public health effects.
Labor unions, representatives from the agricultural industry and trade organizations believe the Corps made the right decision by not widening the environmental impact study. They contend that changing the rules to accommodate conservation groups could lead to problems with exports of other potentially polluting products, such as automobiles.
Wasco County Commissioner Scott Hege said the Corps is correct to look at the Port of Morrow proposal separately from the more extensive projects in Washington. He said the county supports the Coyote Island plan because of its economic development possibilities. Not only will the facility provide at least 25 new jobs with average salaries of $50,000-$80,000 per year, Ambre intends to contribute 10 cents per ton of coal moved through the port to Morrow County schools, which will equate to $350,000-$800,000 per year. The port anticipates an additional $800,000 to $900,000 in annual loading fees.
Ambre is seeking to have 3.5 million metric tons of coal transported from the port each year in covered barges to Northwest terminals, where it will be loaded aboard ships for transport to Asia. The Corps is preparing an environmental assessment of the port site to determine if the same in-depth review should take place that is now under way for Longview and Cherry Point.
The Corps will have to issue a dock construction permit before the Coyote Island facility can be built.
“I think the Corps decision regarding how the review process will be conducted is proper because it is very comprehensive and difficult to get through and I think it will cover all of the bases with Ambre’s project,” said Hege.
He said the existing regulatory review process of the Morrow project will require that it comply with more than a dozen state and federal environmental laws. The coal arriving at the Eastern Oregon port will be offloaded into a completely enclosed facility with a state-of-the art packing system to ensure there is no air or water pollution, according to port officials.
“I think this project balances protection of the environment with the need for jobs and that is something that benefits all of Oregon,” said Hege. “It is critical that we factor what happens to our economy into these decisions.”
The Department of Environmental Quality will hold public hearings July 9 in Portland and Hermiston on the draft air and water permits that were recently issued for the project.
Columbia Riverkeeper and Friends of the Gorge are part of the Power Past Coal coalition that has joined the Sierra Club’s mission to close down coal mining and use of the “dirty and toxic” substance as an energy source in the U.S. and beyond. These groups filed a formal petition in May asking the Corps to consider all three ports together due to the potential for their individual operations to negatively affect the region.
The coalition is also suing Burlington Northern for Clean Water Act violations, claiming that coal debris along the tracks and in the Columbia are illegal. The railroad company contends the lawsuit was initiated as part of an ongoing campaign designed to create headlines that will influence the review process for proposed export terminals.
John Nelson, a resident of The Dalles and conservationist, said the Corps’ decision to limit the scope of its review is “bad news” for businesses and commerce in communities bisected by railroad lines, recreationists who come to the Columbia River Gorge to enjoy the scenic view and everyone who has to experience the real-life impacts of increased global pollution that poison our water and warming temperatures that shrink our snowpacks.
“In the Northwest region, leaders at both the state and federal levels of government are attempting a transition to a clean energy economy,” said Nelson. “Allowing the transportation of hundreds of millions of tons of coal every year through our region to overseas markets for its combustion to produce energy would reverse our intentions to help create a less polluted world and slow the present escalation of global warming. Instead, we might find ourselves heavily invested in activities which are destructive of our environment.”
Supporting the Corps’ decision was Grace Boatwright, legislative director for the National Grange, who says the export facilities in Longview and Cherry Point will also be used to send wheat and other U.S. produce to trade partners.
Boatright issued this statement on behalf of the agriculture industry in response to Moyer’s testimony June 18: “The National Grange stands in strong support of the Corps’ decision to maintain appropriate focus in its review of the export projects under consideration in the Pacific Northwest. This decision, which provides a procedural boost to the long-running review of these projects, serves to further open the door to infrastructure improvements that would greatly benefit the region’s vital agricul