Environmental activists were nervous last month, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that they would not do a comprehensive environmental study of the impact of the proposed new Cherry Point coal terminal near Bellingham.

However, state and federal planners announced today that the scope of the environmental impact statement will include everything from human health impacts from coal dust around the terminal and in communities along the rail line to greenhouse gas emissionsin Asia. 

The announcement thrilled environmentalists. “Today’s announcement lays out the thorough evaluation that this project deserves,” Crina Hoyer, Executive Director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said. “It’s heartening the review will look at the sweeping impacts of transporting millions of tons of coal through the Northwest each year and what that will mean for the health of our communities."

The Cherry Point terminal outside Bellingham would result in as many 18 coal trains per day traveling through the region, including Seattle, and the export of nearly 50 million metric tons of coal each year to Asia—resulting in 100 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.   

Rather than looking at the global impacts—total greenhouse gas emissions from the coal, traffic impacts from the new trains, costs to local communities from necessary infrastructure upgrades—the Army Corps had originally said they would only look at immediate impacts around the terminals.

At a congressional hearing last month, Jennifer Moyer, acting chief of the Regulatory Program for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said: "The potential change in rail traffic patterns is beyond the control and expertise of the Corps, and requires no involvement from the Corps.
The 125,000 comments that came in after seven public hearings (the majority of them alarmed about traffic and health impacts) must have worked.

"Similarly, the possible future shipment of coal by oceangoing vessels across the Pacific Ocean beyond the limits of U.S. navigable waters, and the possible future off-loading, distribution, and burning of coal in Asia are attenuated and far removed from the activities regulated by the Corps at any of the three shipping facilities. ... The Corps has determined that neither a Programmatic nor an area-wide/regional [environmental impact statement] are appropriate when considering the proposed permits."

However, the 125,000 comments that came in after seven public hearings (the majority of them alarmed about traffic and health impacts) must have worked: The Corps signed off today on a two-year study by two local agencies, the Washington State Department of Ecology and Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, on the global impact of the coal terminal proposal, including: 

• A detailed assessment of rail transportation impacts in Whatcom County near the project site, specifically including Bellingham and Ferndale.

• An assessment of how the project would affect human health, including impacts from related rail and vessel transportation in Whatcom County.

• An evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions from terminal operations, and rail and vessel traffic.
 
• A detailed assessment of rail transportation on other representative communities in Washington and a general analysis of out-of-state rail impacts.

• An assessment of how the project would affect human health in Washington.

•A general assessment of cargo-ship impacts beyond Washington waters.

• An evaluation and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions of end-use coal combustion.

This means, for example, the environmental impact statement will consider GHG emissions in China that result from our coal exports.

Goldman Sachs is the main company behind the Cherry Point proposal, and they are far from bearish on coal.

Is this a death knell for the project? Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36, Queen Anne), one of the noisiest critics of the proposal (the trains would run through his district), who pushed Ecology to do a stern analysis, said:

"My goal is to have a transparent discussion about coal. The economic value of this deal is questionable. We're a pro-trade, pro-growth state. This is about having a serious conversation about how a 19th century coal proposal fits into our longterm economic strategy. Making better economic decisions is what this is about."

The Sightline Institute's Eric de Place was more direct about the effect a comprehensive environmental impact statement would have on the proposal's fate. In a post today about the news, he said:

First, burning the 48 million tons of coal proposed for export at the terminal annually would release roughly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide, a staggering figure that amounts to as much carbon pollution as every activity in the state of Washington combined. In other words, it’s a clear environmental disaster

Second, moving that much coal to a terminal will create congestion throughout the region. There’s simply no way around the math. In Seattle, for example, both Sightline and the traffic analysis firm Parametrix have confirmed that new coal export shipments would completely close major center city streets by an additional 1 to 3 hours every day, 365 days per year.

What’s worse for the coal industry, is that the expansive scope of review will likely create further delay and uncertainty, potentially scaring off investors.

De Place is on to something when he notes investor skittishness about coal. Grist had access to a Goldman Sachs report (Goldman Sachs is the main company behind the Cherry Point proposal), and they are far from bear-ish on coal.

Grist's David Robert's writes: "The implication for coal-export projects in the Pacific Northwest is clear: They are bum investments. You don’t need to share concerns over climate change to see it. Just economics."

Rep. Carlyle also posted about today's news on his blog.

Mayor Mike McGinn has been an outspoken critic of the coal train as well; he organized a group of local and tribal leaders to voice their opposition to the proposal, and he testified at the hearing in D.C. last month.

He issued  a statement on the news today as well:

I am very pleased that the state Department of Ecology will look at a wide range of potential impacts to our economy, environment and health from coal trains and coal exports at the proposed Cherry Point terminal. The elected and tribal leaders who have joined me in the Leadership Alliance Against Coal urged the state to undertake this broad assessment because the communities touched by coal export need a full understanding of all the potential impacts.

 

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