Cue the break up music.
The Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington Department of Ecology are no longer preparing a joint environmental impact statement for a proposed coal export terminal on the Washington side of the Columbia River.
The reason? On a different coal export project, Washington state officials were determined to consider the contributions to a warming planet that might result from burning diesel to transporting coal by train from Wyoming and Montana through the Northwest and loading it onto ocean-going vessels bound for Asia, where that coal would be burned.
The Army Corps didn’t want to go along with that approach, choosing instead a more limited review that would focus just on the environmental impact of building and operating the train-to-ship dock on the Columbia River.
The Daily News of Longview on Friday quoted an Army Corps official citing that difference as the reason for breaking up what had been a joint local-state-federal review.
Given those differences, “it made sense to do two separate documents but continue the collaborative process,” corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser in Seattle told the newspaper.
“Basically, our scope is quite narrow in comparison with what the (state) review will be looking at, and that difference did lead us to look at whether a joint document is the best path forward,” she said.
The Army Corps of Engineers posted its notice Friday in the Federal Register that it will be producing a “separate but synchronized environmental review and public scoping process” for the Millennium Bulk Terminal, proposed to be built in Longview, Wash. Cowlitz County and the Washington Department of Ecology will be the other parties doing their separate review.
On Washington state’s other possible coal-export dock, proposed for the shore of Puget Sound north of Bellingham, Wash., the corps currently is engaged in a joint review with the state of Washington and Whatcom County. In that review, Washington Department of Ecology will undertake a more broadly focused review than that planned by the federal agency for the project, called the Gateway Pacific Terminal.
The latest notice in the Federal Register makes no mention of that relationship changing - although there have been rumors that the Army Corps may part ways with the state on that review, as it did Friday for the Longview project.
The Washington Department of Ecology announced in July it will consider impacts to health, rail traffic, the environment and the global climate in their review. The Corps has publicly stated a month earlier that it will not consider impacts beyond the immediate vicinity of the terminal construction site.
Before Friday’s announcement, an Army Corps official said in an interview that the joint review of Gateway Pacific remained in place.
“We each have our own rules and regulations that we must follow and each one of us will do so,” said Muffy Walker, chief of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle. “We will work collaboratively (with Ecology) where we have overlap to ensure that there is consistency in what we are reviewing and how we look at the information but in the end we will make our own separate decisions under our own regulations.”
On Thursday, news surfaced that the Army Corps was shrinking the geographical area it would take into consideration when assessing the environmental impact of the Northwest’s third active coal-export proposal - the Morrow Pacific Project on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.
Proponents of coal exports have said they support the break up of the two agencies. Herb Krohn, a lobbyist with the United Transportation Union, said the scope of the Department of Ecology’s environmental review was “way out on a limb.”
“The corps doesn’t want to be attached to that, to no one’s surprise,” he went on. “We have only been asking for a fair review, a fair time frame, and a fair sense of urgency so we can create these jobs and help our economy.”
But opponents of coal exports disagree.
“The corps keeps advancing with a blinders-on approach,” said Cesia Kearns of the Power Past Coal coalition. “In the absence of leadership from the Army Corps, we are relying on strong protections from our state leaders to protect Northwest families.”
Ok, so there’s a break up happening. But who gets to make the final call?
The Longview coal project will not be built without permit approval from the Department of Ecology.
But, Walker said, this isn’t a “winner take all” scenario, where the corps review could trump Ecology’s.
“There is no trumping of either one,” she said. “They are two separate decisions. We cannot make our final decision without the two of those permits.”
The review process could take several years to complete. Ecology and the corps have not set a firm time frame for completion of their respective environmental impact statements.
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