The Environmental Protection Agency has weighed in on the first of several coal-export projects in the Northwest, telling the Army Corps of Engineers that it should thoroughly review the potential impacts of exporting large amounts of coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia.
A project at Port of Morrow in Oregon has "the potential to significantly impact human health and the environment," the EPA said, so the corps should address overall impacts, including increases in greenhouse gas emissions, rail traffic and mining activity on public lands.
A subsidiary of Ambre Energy North America needs approval from the Corps to build an off-loading facility at Port of Morrow, along the Columbia River near Boardman, Ore. Trains would carry up to 8 million tons of coal a year from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming to barges at the Port of Morrow, where the coal will be transferred onto vessels at the Port St. Helens and shipped to Japan, South Korea or Taiwan.
It's one of at least six projects proposed in Oregon and Washington to ship coal to power-hungry markets in Asia. Projects are planned near Bellingham, Longview and Port of Grays Harbor in Washington state, as well as at Port of St. Helens and Port of Coos Bay in Oregon.
Taken together, they could mean at least about 100 million tons of coal shipped per year to Asia, and environmental groups such as Climate Solutions, Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper and others want regulators to weigh the bigger picture of moving so much coal through communities in the West.
"Collectively these many individual decisions will have a very dramatic impact on the region," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for Earthjustice representing the environmental groups. "If you look at the impact only in the context of each individual decision, there's a consequence that the people most affected won't be heard."
The EPA's letter to the corps this month said it was concerned about potential problems from diesel pollution, which can cause lung damage, and coal dust, which can cause both human health and environmental concerns.
The agency recommended that the corps do a "thorough and broadly-scoped cumulative impacts analysis" that could be used in the environmental analyses of other proposed coal projects of similar scope.
"We are recommending that because of the environmental implications of this project, that a comprehensive environmental analysis goes forward, and that would include the cumulative impacts," said Kate Kelly, who directs the EPA's office of ecosystems, tribal and public affairs for the Northwest region.
"Ultimately they're the lead, they'll make the decision on whether to do an EIS and how broad that EIS should be," she added.
The Army Corps will consider the EPA's concerns as it moves forward, spokeswoman Michelle Helms said in an email.
"We are in the initial phase of the permit review process and will determine the scope of our review as we learn more about the potential impacts," she said.
Brian Gard, spokesman for the Morrow Pacific Project, said the EPA called for a cumulative look at things but did not dictate or say it would dictate reviews of the other coal proposals.
"It's ultimately up to the Corps of Engineers how broad the analyses will be," he said, adding "what we've tried to do is anticipate as many of the concerns as possible and design something that responds to those concerns."
Supporters say the coal-export projects would create jobs and generate revenue for local governments. Opponents have fought them over concerns about coal dust, pollution, train traffic, quality of life and other issues.
In the Bellingham area, SSA Marine is proposing a coal port that can handle 48 million tons of coal.
"This is a mega-project on a scale that the region has not seen," said Shannon Wright, executive director of Communitywise Bellingham, a nonprofit group that citizens formed last year in response to the project. The group has not taken a position on the project.
"We do need to look at the impact not just at the facility, but along the full train corridor from Montana through Washington," she said.
"You can't just look at what is going on at the port-site. That's not the full project. It starts with the coal being mined in the Powder River Basin, travels across the western United States and then is shipped through Asia ... That level of scrutiny should be taken for all of the proposed projects."