LONGVIEW, Wash. — Industrial and residential areas in this Columbia River town are neatly divided by a road called Industrial Way.
On the industry side of the road, paper mills, log and rail yards and a brand new grain export terminal hug the bank of the Columbia River under the towering arch of the Lewis and Clark Bridge.
The old Reynolds Aluminum Co. smelter still stands on a 400-acre parcel on the western end of this industrial zone. But it hasn’t produced aluminum in more than a decade.
Plans for the future of the site have the Longview community divided along new lines – between those who support a coal export terminal there and those who don’t.
A company called Millennium Bulk Terminals wants to take 44 million tons of coal a year off of trains from Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Colorado and transfer it onto ships headed to Asia.
Supporters of the project say the town needs the jobs and economic development that will come along with coal exports. Unemployment in Cowlitz County is 12 percent, and the economic recession has hurt retail sales and cut a hole in tax revenues for local government.
Opponents say the project is bound to cause traffic congestion, coal dust pollution and hurt the town’s chances of attracting new residents and other businesses.
Although Longview has been an industry town in the past, the coal export proposal seems to be pushing the limits of which industries the town will support.
Millennium is backed by two coal companies: Australia-based Ambre Energy and U.S-based Arch Coal. And they have a long road to travel before their coal export plans can become a reality.
For starters, the site isn’t ready to be developed. It’s loaded with old industrial buildings and machinery, piles of unsold dry bulk products, and toxic contaminants that will have to be removed before new construction can take place.
Millennium inherited a long list of clean-up requirements when the company agreed to lease the site from Northwest Alloys, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania-based Alcoa.
Company executives say the clean-up alone will take a couple years and deliver substantial benefits to Longview. And that’s before construction starts on the $600 million coal export terminal, which is projected to create 135 permanent jobs and 1,350 temporary construction jobs as well as more than $2 million in taxes for surrounding Cowlitz County and its special districts.
“We are revitalizing a 70-year-old brownfield industrial site into a world-class port that will create hundreds of direct and indirect family wage jobs while generating millions of dollars in local and state tax revenue,” said Millennium President and CEO Ken Miller.
Supporters of the project say they’re excited to see someone turning the site around after years of neglect and mismanagement. The import/export company that leased the site before Millennium, Chinook Ventures, was charged with more than $250,000 in environmental permit violations.
Nathan Graff works at the Weyerhaeuser paper mill next-door to the Millennium site. He said while he has some questions about coal exports, he’s looking forward to seeing productivity and new jobs at the site.
“I was pretty disappointed with what happened with Chinook and Alcoa,” he said. “It was kind of a black mark there on the site near where I work. So, it’s neat to see something happening out there. It seems like a waste – and also a blight if you’re going to be looking at it out your office window.”
Dan Coffman, president of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union Local 21, said the project could create 85 jobs a day loading coal onto ships. With his union’s membership around 275 today, he said, Millennium’s project could bump it up closer to the 450 mark, where it was when he started working 30 years ago.
“I could see us hiring another large group of workers to come in for good family-wage jobs with benefits,” he said. “That trickles down through the economy. It’s not only a benefit to us, but to local businesses, schools and the tax base.”
Coffman also sees benefits coming from the additional work for bar pilots and river pilots who steer the vessels down the Columbia River and out to the ocean.
Others in town are more cautious about lending their support to the project. City manager Bob Gregory said he wants to wait for Millennium to finish its environmental impact statement – a process that could take up to two years – before taking a position on the project.
“There’s been talk about coal dust, but I haven’t seen any science or evidence that we will have a coal dust issue. I need to see the analysis of that,” he said. “Is coal the highest and best use of the property? Maybe not. … But I think any economic development out there is going to have environmental impacts whether it’s coal dust or something else. If we truly want to see growth in jobs, we have to understand with that comes impacts.”
Millennium got off on the wrong foot with its opponents in Longview when the company changed a relatively small coal export project of 5.7 million tons of coal a year into the second largest proposed terminal in the Northwest (The Cherry Point export facility in Bellingham, Wash., would export 49 million tons of coal a year).
Rev. Kathleen Patton of St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Longview said she doesn’t trust the company now to tell the truth about the potential for coal dust or even the wages it plans on paying its workers.
“I’m really suspicious of Millennium,” she said. “They weren’t very truthful with us from the beginning.”
Patton gave a powerful speech opposing coal exports at a “Power Past Coal” event in Vancouver, Wash. earlier this year. She said it came from a growing number of problems she sees with bringing coal through Longview for export.
“If Longview winds up becoming a coal-export facility, I really do wonder if that’s the last 135 jobs this town will see,” she said. “Who else would be attracted to come here? I don’t see how we can justify saying a few jobs here makes it all worthwhile when we’re jeopardizing the health of not just the planet but even the people who are supposedly going to benefit from this export facility.”
Teresa Purcell is a Longview native who said she’s still hoping to see a cleaner industry take the place of the old aluminum plant once Millennium is through with the clean-up process.
“The whole idea of the coal terminal was going in the wrong direction,” she said. “The health and air quality issues are gigantic. These are real concerns across the board in this community.”
Peter Bennett, vice president of business development for Millennium, said the industry has ways of controlling coal dust from the mines to the export ships.
Coal will be arranged in an aerodynamic shape inside the rail cars to control dust, and it will be sprayed with a chemical that keeps it from blowing off the top. When it is removed from the rail cars, it will be in a covered area, and it will be carried on covered conveyors to the ships.
“Yes, there is dust generated when you handle coal, but we control that dust,” he said. “It’s controlled in many ways throughout the cycle. Do we believe there will be a dust problem? No there will not be a dust problem.”
Gary Lindstrom was the director of marketing for the Port of Longview for 17 years. His biggest concern about the Millennium project gets at a problem that everyone agrees will need to be fixed if the coal export terminal is built.
“Most of the rail infrastructure in this town is more than a half-century old and it needs to be updated in order to accommodate 44 million tons of coal,” he said.
There are four places in town where cars and trucks have to cross over the railroad tracks. Millennium expects its facility to bring eight unit trains full of coal a day into its facility by 2020. Each of those mile-long trains also has to come back through town once it’s been unloaded. That makes for a total of 16 train trips a day. And that’s a lot of stops for the cars and trucks traveling across town.
Rosemary Siipola, transportation planner for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments, said her agency saw this problems coming years ago.
The Council has been studying regional rail needs since 2008 in anticipation of growth in the export business that would also drive up the amount of rail traffic coming through town. In fact, Siipola already has a $200 million railroad upgrade plan that would resolve most of the traffic conflicts Lindstrom is worried about.
It all stems from the completion of the Columbia River Channel Deepening Project, she said, which paved the way for deeper draft ships to travel from the mouth of the river to the Port of Portland.
“We’ve known all along the growth coming from channel deepening would likely come in on unit trains,” she said. “When this coal terminal came into town, that really kicked the ideas from our planning study into high gear.”
The only question now is who will pay for the upgrades and whether they will be done in time to ease the congestion from the Millennium coal trains.
After a presentation to the Kelso Rotary Club last month, Miller said he believes the railroad companies Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific are willing to do the upgrades and pay for them by raising rates for rail line users.
He also said the Millennium site has space for rail cars to park so they can be scheduled to avoid traffic congestion on the return route.
One of the major selling points of the Millennium site is Longview’s industrial land base alongside a major rail line and a deep-water river channel. That’s been a selling point for other industries too.
Lindstrom has lived in Longview since 1991, and he said in all those years the community has generally supported industrial developments. But the Millennium project is different, he said. It’s the first major project he recalls raising such widespread concern.
“We have a lot of industry here,” he said. “It brings a lot of jobs. We’re aware that we’re good at that. And I think the community in general has been fairly supportive of the industrial growth that has taken place here. But I think we’re at a crossroads as to how we’re going to progress and what we’re going to look like and what the quality of life is going to be here.”
(Cassandra Profita writes about nature and community at OPB’s Ecotrope.)
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