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Interests widen in legal fight over Columbia River coal-export terminal

Timber processing facilities line the banks of the Columbia River on May 12, 2005, in Longview, Wash., near the Lewis and Clark Bridge. Six Western states and several national industry groups have lined up against Washington state in a legal battle over its decision to reject permits for a massive proposed coal-export terminal on the Columbia River. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Timber processing facilities line the banks of the Columbia River on May 12, 2005, in Longview, Wash., near the Lewis and Clark Bridge. Six Western states and several national industry groups have lined up against Washington state in a legal battle over its decision to reject permits for a massive proposed coal-export terminal on the Columbia River. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Six Western states and national industry groups have lined up against Washington state in a legal battle over its decision to reject permits for a massive proposed coal-export terminal on the Columbia River.

Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Utah, South Dakota and Nebraska filed a joint amicus brief, arguing in support of project backers and saying the case has broad implications for the export of commodities that are important to many states.

Utah-based Lighthouse Resources, which operates coal mines in Montana and Wyoming, sued Washington state in federal court in January, alleging officials violated federal laws in denying approvals for its $680 million Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview project. The company accuses the governor and state regulators of being anti-coal and discriminating against it by blocking the movement of coal mined in other states from being exported.

The Washington Department of Ecology denied the project a water-quality permit last fall, saying there were too many major harmful impacts including air pollution, rail safety and vehicle traffic.

The project would move coal mined in U.S. Western states through a terminal in Longview for export to South Korea, Japan and other Asian markets. The facility on the Columbia River would handle up 44 million metric tons, boosting U.S. exports to foreign markets.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said in a statement that “politicians in Washington state have again demonstrated their willingness to hold coal states hostage.”

In a legal brief filed Tuesday, Montana and the other states argue: “Today it is coal, tomorrow it could be natural gas or non-organic produce. The interests of interior states in developing foreign trade are now subject to the barriers erected by the policy whims of states that control access to international markets through their ports.”

Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said Thursday the state doesn’t comment on pending litigation but “we are confident that the state’s position is solid.”

Inslee, a Democrat, has made climate change a key issue and has pushed to move the state away from coal toward renewable resources.

“We remain focused on defending our decision. We are confident that it will continue to stand up because it’s based on Washington state law,” a Department of Ecology spokesman said Friday.

Earlier this month, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Mining Association and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers also filed a joint brief backing the project developers.

“The interest and filing by these states and trade groups reinforces our position that this case is about much more than a single company and a single commodity,” Lighthouse Resources said in a statement Friday. “The broad support for our case demonstrates that Washington State’s actions threaten fundamental principles and protections established in the constitution’s Commerce Clause.”

BNSF Railway and five environmental groups that oppose the terminal have also intervened on opposing sides of the lawsuit.

Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice representing environmental groups including the Washington Environmental Council and Columbia Riverkeeper, said “there’s no vast conspiracy here.”

“Different agencies denied permits to build one coal terminal that has harmful (impacts). That’s not a war on coal or a war on the economy. Millennium wants to blow this up to something that is enormous,” she said.

The project has faced a series of regulatory and other setbacks, including last fall when the Washington Ecology Department denied the project a key water permit.

In a court filing, lawyers for Washington state have asked the federal judge to dismiss many of the claims and abstain on other claims while multiple suits are pending in state courts.


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