The effects of more coal trains rolling through communities like Spokane, as well as possible increases to global warming from that coal being burned in Asia, must be studied before a new terminal can be built near Bellingham, a state agency said Wednesday.
In a move hailed by environmentalists and condemned by business and labor organizations, the state Department of Ecology said the environmental impact statement for the proposed Cherry Point coal terminal on the north Puget Sound coast will look far beyond the immediate area when considering the effects of a new port.
The state will have consultants study the health and safety impacts of added train traffic throughout Washington to deliver an estimated 48 million metric tons of coal a year and the possible increase of greenhouse gases from the burning of that coal in China and other Asian countries.
Washington has laws that discourage greenhouse gas pollution and coal power, said Josh Baldi of the Ecology Department. The coal that is expected to be shipped out of the port could create more greenhouse gas pollution than is currently generated in the state.
But that doesn’t mean a permit couldn’t be issued, Baldi added: “This is largely about the disclosure of impacts.”
The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal and several other new ports proposed for the West Coast have split the state. Opponents say the trains will clog rail lines and the coal will increase pollution and exacerbate global warming. Supporters counter that China will burn coal regardless of whether these ports are built, and American coal is less polluting than the softer coal the Chinese now burn.
Last year, the Spokane City Council called for a study of the effects of more coal trains coming through the city, but local businesses and the Spokane Labor Council support the project as a job creator. In December, about 800 people attended a hearing at the Spokane Fair and Expo Center on what the EIS should examine.
Muffy Walker, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said Wednesday the federal agency will confine its studies to the land and water around the proposed facility in Whatcom County.
The corps, the Ecology Department and Whatcom County are “co-leaders” on the environmental impact statement. But if the state refuses to issue its permits and the developer loses a court battle such a decision would likely generate, the project couldn’t be built even if it met federal standards.
Bart Mihailovich, of Spokane Riverkeeper, praised the state’s decision to look at the effects of increased train traffic throughout the state rather than just in the area of the proposed terminal. While some potential health effects can be mitigated, he said, there are questions about the costs of improving the railroad infrastructure to handle the extra traffic.
“This is what we asked for,” Mihailovich said. “We want to know what this means to Spokane.”
Spokane might not be among the specific cities studied, however. Consultants will study an undetermined number of “representative” cities and towns of various sizes and with different railroad configurations to create an index of potential impacts of noise, vibration, traffic congestion and health effects from coal dust and additional diesel fumes, Baldi said. Bellingham and Ferndale, which are close to the proposed site, will definitely be studied, but the other communities haven’t yet been chosen.
“We’re not looking for volunteers. We’re not studying every community along the rail lines,” he said.
The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports – a coalition of manufacturers, shippers, unions and farm groups that supports the project and was pushing for an impact study limited to the area around the port – blasted the Ecology Department’s decision as a precedent “that could potentially interfere with international commerce laws protecting rail and trade and discourage new business investment in the state.”
Such far-reaching reviews might make it difficult for manufacturers to export almost any product and discourage developers from investing in any new port projects, members of the alliance said in prepared statements.
“This decision has the potential to alter the Northwest’s long and historic commitment to expanding trade, which today supports four in every 10 jobs in Washington state,” said Lauri Hennessey, an alliance spokeswoman.
Baldi said the precedent was not as far-reaching as some project supporters were suggesting and wouldn’t apply to every commodity that might be shipped out of a Washington port. Coal is special because of its end use and life-cycle costs, he said: “We look at each project case by case.”
Neither supporters nor opponents of the project have a chance to challenge the parameters of the EIS, which will take about two years to produce in a draft form that will then be circulated for public comment before being revised for a final version. The EIS can’t be challenged until it is final.