Senator calls for thorough study of Northwest coal export terminals
Written bySCOTT STREATER, Greenwire
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) has joined the growing chorus of elected leaders and conservationists concerned about efforts to use the Pacific Northwest as a launching pad for domestic coal exports to Asia.
Merkley's letter sent this week to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Army Secretary John McHugh urges the Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a thorough environmental study of proposed export projects that would transport as much as 146 tons of coal a year through Oregon and Washington and on to Asia.
A number of companies, including Kinder Morgan, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Ambre Energy of Australia and SSA Marine, have proposed up to six coal terminals for the Washington and Oregon coasts, where exports of coal mined in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana could reach an estimated 170 million tons by 2022 (ClimateWire, July 18).
The proposals, however, have drawn significant concern and outright opposition from those who believe a massive coal terminal will diminish air and water quality in the region while increasing noise, congestion and wait times at rail crossings.
Merkley wrote that he is "supportive of efforts to increase exports of American products, especially through Oregon's ports," but acknowledged "that many Oregonians have serious concerns relating to local and global impacts of these projects."
He added: "I am, therefore, writing to request that the Army Corps and the Bureau of Land Management conduct a comprehensive, expedited programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed coal export facilities in Oregon and Washington. The proposed export projects are a major undertaking but there has been significant uncertainty about the proposed facilities and communities are divided about the benefits and consequences of exporting coal. For that reason, I believe it is imperative that we do all we can to ensure there is full public disclosure of information about, and analysis of, the proposed facilities."
The Army Corps initially indicated in a recent letter to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) from Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant Army secretary for civil works, that the agency would limit its reviews to individual project sites and not conduct a cumulative impact analysis. The Army Corps has since indicated it is open to conducting a broader EIS (Greenwire, June 29).
U.S. EPA, Kitzhaber and almost 90 elected officials from the region have asked for a broad analysis of the impacts of increased coal shipments. They include Washington Sen. Patty Murray (D), who last month wrote a letter to corps leaders requesting a "cumulative impact analysis" be done for all six proposals, which she wrote "stand to have significant environmental and public health impacts."
Conversely, coal export backers, including Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), and dozens of other lawmakers have strongly urged the Obama administration not to conduct a broad review of the proposed terminal projects.
Merkley's letter drew raves this week from environmentalists and public health advocates.
Brett VandenHeuvel, the executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper in Hood River, Ore., said Merkley's letter "demonstrates his strong desire to protect the people of Oregon, along with our citizens and businesses, from dirty coal export. We cannot put our head in the sand and ignore the cumulative impacts of proposed massive coal infrastructure."
Regna Merrit, a member of the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility's environmental health working group in Portland, said Merkley's "concern for the health and safety of Oregonians" is warranted. "From immediate delays of emergency vehicles to the long-term impacts on climate, coal export proposals bring real and measurable threats to the health of our families and communities," she said.