State seeks wide-ranging review of all coal terminals in NW, including Cherry Point

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 9, 2012 

Coal terminals from Coos Bay, Ore., to Cherry Point will have combined impacts on the environment that require their own formal study, a state agency said.

The Washington Department of Ecology on Monday, May 7, requested a regional review of as many as six coal terminal projects that could be built in Washington and Oregon. The agency's position came in a comment on an application for a coal export facility in Port of Morrow, Ore., south of Kennewick. Ecology asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take a "hard look" at combined impacts such as increased rail traffic, coal dust and diesel pollution.

Each site would ship millions of tons of coal a year from mines in Montana and Wyoming to markets in Asia. One of the six is the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, proposed by SSA Marine. Gateway Pacific also could export other bulk cargo.

The region's rail lines, owned and operated by BNSF and Union Pacific, may not be able to handle the added traffic, Ecology's comment said. The rail system at Spokane is a "choke point" that could become even more congested if the multiple coal terminals were built, Ecology said.

Taken together, the terminals would add at least 37 trains to certain rail lines in the state. The additional trains could bring more diesel air pollution and coal dust, more noise, and increased wait times at road crossings for emergency vehicles, according to the comment.

BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said she could not know which lines the coal trains would use, or even if they would travel through Spokane.

"We can't tell you five years from now or six years from now ... what the market will bring on lines that are shared by all different commodities," Lundsberg said.

A representative of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a Whatcom County group opposed to the Cherry Point terminal, welcomed the idea of a regional environmental study.

"We think it's an absolutely essential step to understand the full impact of the proposals," said Matt Krogh, North Sound Baykeeper project manager for RE Sources.

While inclined to defer to Lundsberg as a railroad insider, Krogh said he has researched the rail routes and found that fully loaded coal trains must travel through Spokane, unless the shipper wants to bear the extra expense of detouring trains through Canada.

A regional review of environmental impacts - if the corps even agrees to it - should not distract the public from participating in the individual review of Gateway Pacific that's about to begin, Ecology spokesman Larry Altose said.

Public comment on what an environmental review of the Gateway Pacific Terminal should include is scheduled for June.

"We're staying on track," Altose said. "We would encourage people to comment on anything and everything that needs to be evaluated."

The regional review is appropriate, but the focus should be on the local project, said Shannon Wright, executive director of Communitywise Bellingham, a group that advocates for a strong public voice in the review process, and the reduction or elimination of adverse impacts.

"From what we have seen so far of what Ecology is proposing, it seems like you would be able to look at the cumulative while also looking at the local impacts," she said.

Gateway Pacific spokesman Craig Cole had no comment on Ecology's request.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-715-2266.

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