Washington Appeals Coal Project Due to Health, Climate Change

Jan. 10th Update: Though the Washington Department of Ecology has joined the lawsuit against the coal export terminal in Longview, it remains unclear whether Governor Gregoire will eventually take a stance against the project.  In fact Governor Gregoire recently made some disappointing statements to the media in which she downplayed the contribution of exporting coal to climate change.  It's time Governor Gregoire joined her own Department of Ecology and hundreds of Washington residents in loudly opposing any new coal export projects in Washington.

About a month ago I argued on Justmeans that the State of Washington should take a strong stanceagainst a proposed coal export terminal on the Columbia River, partly because of the project’s impact on climate change. I’m happy to report that yesterday the state government indicated Washington leaders may be ready to do just that. Washington’s Department of Ecology has filed to join four major environmental groups as a party in the appeal of a permit for the export terminal, issued by the Cowlitz County Commission last month. This could have profound implications for a legal battle that will have a big impact on the global causes of climate change.

As I previously explained, Australia-based Ambre Energy is has proposed building a terminal near Longview, Washington that would each year export more than five million tons of coal mined out of the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. The coal would be sold mostly to the growing economies of Asia, predominantly China. In other words the export terminal would link one of the biggest coal reserves in the world—the Powder River Basin—to the fastest-growing coal market on the planet. Since burning coal contributes more to climate change than anything else, the impact on the climate would be disastrous.

Fortunately the Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper, Washington Environmental Council, and Climate Solutions are appealing the Cowlitz County decision that would have allowed the export terminal project to move forward. Now the Washington Department of Ecology has signed on in support of the appeal as well, showing state leaders understand the problem. Both the Department of Ecology and the environmental groups involved are concerned partly about the climate change impacts of exporting coal abroad—though other reasons for the appeal include concerns that Cowlitz County didn’t adequately consider local environmental impacts like increased dredging in the Columbia River and the health effects of toxic coal dust from train shipments moving through the local area.

Finally and not insignificantly, the debate over the coal export terminal has taken another interesting turn at the state level. In a Seattle Times op-ed earlier this month, Ross McFarlane of Climate Solutions and Kevin Wilhelm of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce argued that in becoming a coal export zone, Washington risks turning into a “resource colony,” providing raw materials to countries that use coal to manufacture products then imported by the United States. In other words Washington, and by implication the US, risk being used by China the same way developing countries have long been exploited by industrialized nations. The US could become a raw materials extraction zone, absorbing the environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel mining and transport while exporting products used to power China’s high-tech and clean energy industries.

In light of all this, the Department of Ecology’s decision to join the appeal of the coal export terminal in Cowlitz County is an encouraging sign. It suggests state leaders in Washington understand the economic, health, and climate change impacts of exporting coal, and are prepared to do something about it. Now the appeal goes to the state Shoreline Hearings Board, which will consider the case in April. Though the legal fight to stop the export terminal isn’t over yet, it’s good to have the state of Washington coming down on the right side of the argument.

Photo credit: Keith Burtis