DOE requests U.S. Army Corps study combined impacts of coal terminal proposals

Published on Wed, May 9, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) is urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the combined effects of several coal terminals proposed for the Washington and Oregon coasts.

DOE director Ted Sturdevant wrote in a May 7 letter to Army Corps officials that DOE is concerned about the cumulative impacts of coal export terminals proposed for the waters off Washington and Oregon. Sturdevant included comments DOE officials had made on a terminal proposal slated to transfer coal from a yet-to-be constructed port near Boardman, Oregon, to another terminal on the mouth of the Columbia River.

“[DOE] is especially concerned about cumulative impacts because the present proposal is one of several proposed projects aimed at expanding coal export capacity within a defined geographic region (i.e., the states of Washington and Oregon),” Sturdevant wrote.

The Corps requires permits from individuals and companies wanting to do construction in the waters of the United States. The six (or more) coal terminals proposed for the Washington and Oregon coasts, including the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for the Cherry Point area just south of Birch Bay, fall under this jurisdiction.

Specifically, DOE staff was providing comment on permit applications recently submitted to the Corps by Coyote Island Terminals, a subsidiary of Ambre Energy North America. This project, based near Boardman, would transfer coal by barge west to another proposed terminal closer to the mouth of the Columbia River and handle up to 8.8 million tons of coal annually, with 11 trains, 12 loaded barges and two large transport ships calling per week.

DOE officials said that several federal court cases support the completion of an environmental impact statement (EIS) detailing the cumulative impacts of the multiple coal terminal proposals coming down the pipe. The Corps would complete this study separate from an EIS for any individual terminal project.

In their comments, DOE officials called out the combined rail traffic impacts of the proposed coal terminals as a main concern. The combined rail traffic from the Gateway Pacific Terminal, the Boardman project and the Millennium Bulk terminal proposed for Longview, Washington, would put significant strain on existing rail infrastructure, DOE officials wrote. Trains carrying coal from Wyoming would take the same rail route across Washington to their final destination.

“[These] proposals at full build-out could result in approximately 18 daily trips (Gateway Pacific Terminal) and 16 daily trips (Millennium Bulk terminal),” DOE officials said. “Thus, a minimum of 37 coal trains might daily transit the same route.”

The comments also describe the ways increased rail traffic could negatively impact human health, from increased diesel train engine emissions and coal dust off of uncovered coal cars. DOE officials also noted the significant public concern about the proposed coal export terminals and their combined human health impacts.

“The potential for these and other types of impacts has not gone unnoticed by communities located along this [rail] corridor,” DOE officials said. “Many are expressing strong concerns about the potential for significant environmental impacts that could occur from the cumulative impacts of these proposals.”

The Corps is not required to conduct the cumulative study the DOE is requesting. However, DOE officials urged such impacts should nevertheless be considered in permitting decisions for the individual terminal proposals.

“Should the [Army Corps] decline to do this broader cumulative impact analysis as part of a single EIS, it is still imperative that agencies making permit decisions on individual projects consider the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of those decisions,” DOE officials concluded.

DOE spokesperson Larry Altose said this request will most likely not affect the environmental review process for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The three co-lead agencies for that environmental review, Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, the Army Corps and DOE, continue to prepare for that process.