The broader environmental effects of expanding coal exports from northwest Washington won’t be part of studies conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, its regulatory chief told lawmakers Tuesday.
Opponents of three coal terminals proposed for sites in Washington and Oregon, including the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, have called for the studies to cover possible economic, environmental, cultural, public health and qualityof-life impacts of exporting more coal from the region as a whole.
But that large a study just can’t be done, said Jennifer Moyer, the Army Corps’ acting regulatory chief.
“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 Army Corps’ control and responsibility for the permit applications related to the proposed projects,” Moyer said in her testimony to a subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Army Corps, Whatcom County and the state Department of Ecology are putting together the legally required environmental impact statement for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project, proposed by Seattle-based SSA Marine. That document is expected to take at least a year to complete.
The Army Corps’ rejection of an area-wide EIS is a win for the companies proposing the terminals, which have said each proposed terminal should be studied individually and only at their respective sites — not along the routes commodities take to get there.
“Deviating from existing regulations would have set a dangerous precedent for all employers and created a chilling effect for our state’s economy,” said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business.
“It is important to note that these shipping terminal projects are already subject to exhaustive environmental review before they can be permitted and, once in operation, they must comply with more than a dozen state and federal environmental laws.”
Four coal trains currently come through Washington bound for Canada.
If the Gateway Pacific Terminal is built, it could add as many as 18 trains to the tracks though Skagit County — nine with full loads going north and nine empty going south.
Many officials representing areas of Skagit County, including county commissioners, the Mount Vernon mayor and city council, and state Reps. Kris Lytton and Jeff Morris, have called for broad reviews of the project’s potential local impacts.
The other export terminals proposed for Washington and Oregon would not increase train traffic through Skagit.
Opponents of coal export expansion, including Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, also testified Tuesday.
They continue to call for the individual studies of each proposed terminal to be as widely scoped as possible.
McGinn pointed to traffic and public health concerns for the areas along the trains’ route, which include Seattle and western Skagit County.
“At a time when we are close to powering down the last coal plant in Washington state, we shouldn’t be moving forward on coal exports that would pump more carbon into our atmosphere than the Keystone XL oil pipeline,” he said.
McGinn leads a coalition of 52 elected leaders, including some from the Swinomish Tribal Community, who oppose expanding coal exports to China.
Several environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club, are suing Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and five coal companies over pollution they say violates the federal Clean Water Act.
KC Golden, policy director for Climate Solutions, said increasing coal exports is “a losing economic strategy and an irreversible climate disaster.”
“All we’re asking for is a comprehensive, rigorous and transparent evaluation of the impacts and costs before public coal leases, subsidies and permits are offered to the coal industry,” he said. “We’re confident the facts will speak for themselves.”