A broad coalition of conservation and clean energy groups, including Earthjustice, the Washington Environmental Council and The Sierra Club want to stop a permit to build a 416-acre coal export terminal on the Columbia River at Longview, WA.
The controversial permit was approved last month by commissioners in Cowlitz County, Washington. The coalition, which also includes Climate Solutions and Columbia Riverkeeper, is appealing that decision before the state’s Shorelines Hearings Board, asserting the facility would threaten public health and runs counter to state efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
If allowed to move forward the permit will enable an Australian company, Ambre Energy, to unload coal sourced from Wyoming and Montana from railcars in Longview and load it onto ships bound for China.
A curious variation on the old coals-to-Newcastle situation and the not-in-my-backyard mindset indeed that presents some tough questions: isn’t it hypocrisy of the highest order for Northwest states to cover themselves in green, campaign to close coal-burning plants in the region and encourage renewable energy use while at the same time enabling companies to ship fossil fuels overseas so that it can be used to pollute the atmosphere on the other side of the world? Where is the line drawn between private enterprise, economic development, the public interest and environmental responsibility? Should struggling ports, which in Washington State are public (or quasi-public) institutions, turn their backs on infrastructure and economic development opportunities?
Cowlitz County Board Chair George Raiter last month welcomed the project and the 70 jobs it’s expected to bring to Longview: “If I were to choose an expansion of jobs in this county, I’d choose all those great high-tech companies. But they’re not here. These people are here and personally I’m happy to see someone come in and develop that site, clean it up and start creating some more jobs for our citizens here.” Cowlitz County has one of the highest unemployment rates in Washington at 11 percent.
The coalition’s appeal says officials sidestepped scientific reviews and pushed through approval of a “severely deficient permit.” The groups want the Shorelines Hearing Board to invalidate the permit and require the county to complete all the required analyses.
“The county commission rubber-stamped the permit and ignored their duty to act in the best interest of the community,” says Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, who filed the appeal on behalf of the coalition. “They refused to see the impacts of increased coal mining, more trains roaring through the Columbia Gorge and the effects of mercury on children and adults living here and far away.”
Coalition member Washington Environmental Council adds, “The coal shipped through this one facility would create more emissions than the entire city of Seattle and more than any single facility in the state. Is this the kind of future we want for our region? We need to decide – other coal companies are already lining up with their own proposals.”
Doug Howell, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Coal Free Northwest campaign, says, “Allowing callous coal companies to offshore their carbon pollution where it will do just as much damage to the climate is not an acceptable proposal. People in the Pacific Northwest are already suffering the damage done by pollution coming across the Pacific from Asia and this will only make the problem worse.”
It simply does not compute ethically or morally, but unfortunately the legal niceties surrounding this type of permitting process aren’t very nice. It’s intellectually dishonest for a region that has for a long time campaigned to close its dirty coal-burning energy plants to become a supplier of that same dirty coal—about 5 million tons each year—to China.
China and Cowlitz County arguably are making choices that are individually and economically justified; they are blind to the big-picture.