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Originally published February 23, 2012 at 8:57 PM | Page modified February 23, 2012 at 9:19 PM

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Proposal for massive Longview coal shipping terminal re-emerges

Plans to build a shipping terminal near the mouth of the Columbia River to export Rocky Mountain coal to Asia have resurfaced — and this time the proposal is bigger than ever, with plans to ship at least 25 million tons of coal each year.

Seattle Times environment reporter

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Plans to build a shipping terminal near the mouth of the Columbia River to export Rocky Mountain coal to Asia have resurfaced — and this time the proposal is bigger than ever.

Sort of.

Millennium Bulk Terminals, which withdrew plans last year to export up to 5 million tons of coal a year, filed federal, state and county permit applications Thursday to build a new coal-export facility in Longview.

The company hopes to build a new dock that would accept rail cars of coal from Colorado and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. The company hopes initially to ship 25 million tons abroad and eventually increase exports to 44 million metric tons a year.

"We see a huge growing demand for electricity and coal generation in the Pacific Rim," Millennium's new chief executive officer, Ken Miller, said Thursday.

The proposal is far larger than what the company proposed in 2010. But it's less than the 60 million tons of coal a year its Australian parent company, Ambre Energy, had admitted in a 2010 memo that it ultimately hoped to export from Longview. Company officials had urged executives to keep those longer-range plans secret.

"We are (at) too sensitive a juncture to raise the plans to build a second berth," one memo read.

After the memos were unearthed in a lawsuit in 2011 by environmentalists, Millennium apologized and withdrew its plans. Its CEO then left the company.

But the misrepresentation may still play a role in the way the company's proposal is perceived by the public and public agencies, which had expressed dismay at the intentional misdirection.

"This is the same company that betrayed everybody's trust last year," said Brett VandenHeuvel, with Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental group. "They essentially went into hiding for a year and now they're back. But we're confident that this time there won't be a free pass."

The battle over coal exports has pushed Washington into the global energy debate. Millennium is just one of at least three companies hoping to build Northwest facilities to ship coal from the Rockies to booming markets in China and India.

Regulators are currently evaluating plans for a terminal near Cherry Point outside Bellingham. Another company, Texas-based energy services giant Kinder Morgan, wants to export coal through the Port of St. Helens, Ore., about 20 miles south of Longview.

Currently only two coal berths exist on the West Coast — one just across the border in southern British Columbia, and a small coal terminal in Alaska.

Companies are looking for ways to capitalize on the explosive growth of coal development in the West at a time when the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with coal-burning have made the resource unpopular in the United States. Just last year, the governor signed a deal with Washington's last coal-fired power plant to shut down its boilers by 2025.

Some energy experts have suggested that China and India are so locked into coal they may burn it whether they get it from the U.S. or elsewhere.

Environmentalists disagree, arguing that hooking Asia on cheap U.S. coal will slow or halt efforts to get developing nations to seek cleaner energy.

They also argue that it's ludicrous for state officials to speak with pride about reducing Washington's carbon-dioxide footprint if the state also profits off selling coal to Asia.

Millennium's proposal calls for upgrading a bulk terminal and erecting an adjacent coal-only facility on a 400-acre site.

The company said it spent the last year examining technology and operating processes and now guarantees it won't exceed 44 million metric tons of coal a year.

Miller, the CEO, also said he isn't worried that other terminals have been proposed.

"We see that demand will continue to grow," he said

The application process is lengthy and thus far debate has largely been about local issues. Opponents in Bellingham and of the proposed terminal in Longview have expressed concern about a river of trains tying up traffic in cities and small towns as open cars ferry potentially air-polluting coal to Washington marine ports.

Supporters say the region needs the construction and coal-operation jobs.

But before either proposal gets approval, the Department of Ecology will have to do a formal environmental review. And it's still not clear how far-reaching that review will be.

Environmentalists say state law requires all ecological harm from a building project — not just direct harm from the physical structure — has to be evaluated.

They say that means regulators will have to consider the potential for air pollution from trainloads of coal cars, the potential for spills in rivers near coal-delivery routes, as well as the human harm from carbon-dioxide and other air-pollution emissions when coal gets burned in China.

"We're asking for a broad look," VandenHeuvel said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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