Seattle • The Army Corps of Engineers has revived an environmental review of a controversial coal-export project in Washington a year after state environmental regulators denied the project a key permit.
Washington Ecology Director Maia Bellon expressed concerns about the Corps' decision to restart work on the federal permitting process while some U.S. senators in the coal-producing states of Montana and Wyoming have urged the federal agency to push ahead with permitting the $680 million terminal along the Columbia River to export coal to Asia.
The state agency last fall denied Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview a key water quality permit needed for the project. It cited significant and unavoidable harm to the environment, including damage to wetlands and increased vessel traffic. The proposed port would handle up to 44 million metric tons of coal per year.
The ongoing fight over the coal-export facility in Longview comes as the Trump administration considers using West Coast military installations or other federal properties as it seeks to pave the way for more U.S. fossil fuel exports to Asia. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told The Associated Press that it's in the interest of national security but officials in West Coast states have rejected private-sector efforts to build new coal ports.
Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said that staff is proceeding with the permit evaluation process "while still recognizing that there are actions and outcomes outside of the Corps' control yet to be resolved, including the state's denial of the water quality certification."
But Bellon told the Corps last month that it is prevented under the federal Clean Water Act from issuing a permit after a state has denied a water quality certification. In her letter to Col. Mark Geraldi, the Corps' Seattle district commander, she urged him to follow "long-standing Corps procedure and precedent by respecting Washington's decision."
Four Republican U.S. senators, including Steve Daines of Montana and Wyoming's Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, have asked the Corps to complete its environmental review and process the permit, while also determining the state has waived its authority to issue a water quality permit.
The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians last month passed a resolution opposing the Corps continuing the federal permitting process for the coal-export facility in Longview.
Millennium Bulk Terminals and its parent company Utah-based Lighthouse Resources have filed multiple lawsuits in state and federal court to challenge the decision to deny key permits. They have accused state officials, including Bellon and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee of being anti-coal and basing decisions on political considerations. State regulators have dismissed those claims as nonsense, saying they followed state and federal laws to protect the state's people and environment.
Wendy Hutchison, Millennium's senior vice president of external affairs, said the Corps' "ongoing permit and design review work demonstrates the Millennium project is continuing to move forward."
She added: "We are confident the Army Corps of Engineers will conclude that Millennium will build the terminal the right way."
The state and federal government worked separately on environmental reviews of the project. The Corps released a draft report in September 2016 and took public comments soon afterward but never finalized that report.
Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky with the Power Past Coal coalition, opposed to new fossil fuel terminals, said the Corps is “attempting an end-run around state laws.”