Coal exports worthy of thorough review

Residents of the Pacific Northwest can breathe a little easier today: A controversial project to build the largest coal export terminal in North America will receive the type of environmental review it deserves.

The state Department of Ecology made that clear last week when the agency — along with Whatcom County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — announced the scope of the environmental impact statement they will require for the proposed Cherry Point coal export terminal in Whatcom County.

The State Environmental Policy Act allows Ecology to examine the Gateway Pacific project in a comprehensive way and without geographic limits. That’s exactly what will happen over the next two years, just as it should. The issues identified for environmental review are many and far-reaching. For instance:

Agencies will examine the human health effects of coal dust from around the terminal and in the communities through which the 1.5-mile-long coal trains — nine loaded and nine empty — would pass daily.

This is an important issue for South Sound residents since most coal shipped through Washington from Wyoming would likely follow a freight rail route through the Columbia River Gorge and up the Interstate 5 corridor through Thurston County north to Cherry Point.

Impacts to marine and rail traffic will be part of the environmental review. Much is demanded of the regional rail system as the economy continues to improve, demand for high-speed passenger rail service increases and the potential of trains carrying crude oil to ports for shipment to West Coast refineries grows. Just how the coal trains would fit in requires an objective review.

The EIS will also examine the greenhouse gas emissions spewed from the coal-fired plants the coal would fuel in Asia, particularly China. Coal is a fossil fuel that plays a major role in a warming global climate. The proposed coal exports from the Gateway project and two other proposed terminals in Longview and the Columbia River in Oregon would perpetuate a status quo energy policy dependent on coal, one that is quickly falling out of favor in the United States and elsewhere.

True, China is still very much reliant on coal. But leaders in China and India have expressed a desire to diversify their energy portfolios, reducing their dependence on coal. If the Pacific Northwest coal terminals are built, they could face a far different coal market than what exists today.

Project proponents are crying foul, claiming that the environmental review required by Ecology is unprecedented and reaches too far. They suggest the EIS demanded for a coal export terminal could have a dampening effect on the state’s export trade market.

Well, there’s a big difference between the export of agricultural products and the export of coal. The coal terminals are getting the type of broad scrutiny they deserve.

At its core, the State Environmental Policy Act is a public disclosure document, a place to explore and detail all of the facts about a proposed project. Ecology officials have not issued some broad policy statement against coal exports. They’ve simply required answers to questions on the minds of many.

Let the environmental review process run its course. Let the necessary studies begin. Allow the EIS to be as thorough as possible. Too much is at stake to settle for anything less.