Caldwell: China wants to keep coal trains running on time

Spokane is halfway to the millennium.

That may not be a good thing.

Last week, an entity called Millennium Bulk Terminals bought the Longview, Wash., site where Reynolds Metals used to smelt aluminum. Millennium, a subsidiary of Australia-based Ambre Energy, plans to convert the facility to one from which upward of five million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin mines of Wyoming and Montana could be shipped to China each year.

The Chinese build new coal plants at the astounding rate of one per month. Their mines, and those in major suppliers like Australia and Indonesia, cannot keep up. They already import coal from the interior of British Columbia and Alberta, and some Powder River Basin coal has also been shipped north for export from a terminal near Vancouver, B.C.

The U.S. coal moves through Spokane, as do other trainloads headed for the Portland General Electric generating station at Boardman, Ore., and the TransAlta-owned plant at Centralia, Wash.

BNSF Railway will not disclose how much coal it moves across the Inland Northwest. Because the number of customers using the railroad to ship coal is so few, a spokeswoman says, revealing the volume shipped for one would tell competitors — mines and railroads — how much capacity others are using.

But Millennium Chief Executive Officer Joe Cannon estimates shipments to Longview might add one train per day to the traffic. With more than 50 trains rolling past daily on the shared BNSF/Union Pacific tracks, the impact would be relatively small – unless you are waiting at a crossing for one of these mile-long trains to pass.

When, or if, those trains come is causing some heartburn for the state of Washington.

After the Cowlitz County commissioners granted Millennium a shoreline permit, environmentalists appealed. Review of the air-quality impacts, they say, should take into account not just the pollution from loading the coal at Longview, but its combustion when it reaches China. Why insist on ever-tighter pollution controls at Boardman and Centralia, they ask, if the Chinese can burn the same stuff with none of the environmental constraints?

The Department of Ecology, which shares those concerns, intervened in the case late last month.

That prompted a visit by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has been none-too-subtle expressing his concerns that officials in Olympia are interfering with development of his state’s vast coal resources, and the mining jobs that result. Many Washington utility customers, including those of Avista, use electricity generated with Montana coal, he notes.

He left a Jan. 5 meeting with Gov. Chris Gregoire apparently satisfied Washington just wants assurances everyone complies with the rules.

Cannon says he is on board, too, although he adds the company hopes to be loading ships by the end of 2012.

A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator whose responsibilities included air quality, Cannon says Powder River coal will replace much dirtier coal China now burns.

“There will be no increase in greenhouse gases as a result of this,” he says.

Cannon adds that Millennium will be cleaning up a site still polluted by smelting operations that ended almost a decade ago. The irony, or aluminumy: Longview and Kaiser Aluminum Corp.’s Mead and Tacoma smelters were shut down for lack of electricity.

China’s appetite for carbon boggles the mind. That Powder River coal, clean as it may be, will displace rather than supplement what the Chinese can get elsewhere, does not seem likely.

But Washington’s ability to check that demand by denying Millennium its permits seems no less unlikely.

Only the Chinese can stop that train.

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