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Originally published Friday, May 24, 2013 at 3:54 PM

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Guest: Move ahead with environmental (EIS) study on coal trains

The foot-dragging on studying environmental impacts of coal trains is holding up a major rural economic-development opportunity in Cowlitz County, writes guest columnist Mike Wallin.

Special to The Seattle Times

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AMAZON.COM is buying up South Lake Union. Bioscience and tech jobs are flourishing. The unemployment rate is ahead of the curve at 6 percent, but please, don’t measure our state’s economic recovery by looking only at how Seattle’s economy is roaring back.

While Longview was named by Forbes magazine as one of the 10 prettiest cities last year, the unemployment rate for Cowlitz County is still at a chronically high 12 percent.

While Seattle was discussing how to woo a team for a new professional basketball stadium with partial public funding, our community was grappling with closing one of our high schools due to a drop in enrollment and revenue.

Our community is working hard to keep the door open for business to invest and create jobs, which is slow to occur and why the endless foot-dragging on one particular project is so perplexing.

Southwest Washington is home to a company that wants to clean up a former aluminum smelter site and invest $650 million private dollars in constructing an export facility.

The company proposing this ambitious plan has committed to using local, union labor to construct the site and is engaged in ongoing discussions with a local union to operate it once it is built. The company currently has workers at the site importing bulk materials that support hundreds of jobs across the state. The company and its employees are contributing members of our community.

What is holding up a rural economic-development opportunity of this size? Coal.

Millennium Bulk Terminals is the company and its financial commitment to our community is impressive. In addition to its efforts to invest about $650 million private dollars in a coal-export facility, it is spending millions more to clean up a former smelter site and expand its facility for non-coal commodities. This is an unprecedented opportunity for our community.

Our state is home to some of the strongest environmental regulations in the country. If Millennium can meet our strict environmental rules and mitigate issues we face as a community, the company should be given a chance to invest in and operate a terminal.

I agree with Gov. Jay Inslee that a rigorous and objective environmental review is required. We should look at issues related to coal dust and train-crossing times. Our community needs answers to these questions, but the process actually needs to move forward to get those questions answered.

The latest we’ve heard is that the state’s Department of Ecology will begin “scoping” for the environmental-impact statement this summer. So 18 months after submitting permits, a review process that was slated to take 18 months to complete will finally begin. Why is this taking so long?

For Longview, shipping goods on the Columbia River is not a novel idea; neither is hauling coal by rail. At any given moment there are multiple trains hauling coal through our state — delivering jobs to Canada.

Stockpiling coal isn’t new to Washington either. Just north at the Trans Alta facility in Lewis County there is a coal stockpile that measured about 1.4 million tons this summer. Millennium has proposed a stockpile about the same size at full capacity. To our knowledge there has never been a coal-dust related complaint filed against the Lewis County facility.

So why is our community being held hostage in regulatory purgatory? If permits are denied, the slow walk from state regulators could force our community to miss out on this economic cycle and damn us to keep a valuable piece of waterfront locked up by a derelict aluminum smelter.

We know that four out of 10 jobs in Washington are supported by international trade. That is certainly the case in Cowlitz County, where we boast the two largest grain-export facilities on the West Coast and have been shipping logs to our trade partners for generations.

The most recent development of the EGT grain terminal, only a few properties upriver from the proposed coal facility, received its permits in a matter of months.

Citizens throughout our community encourage Gov. Inslee and the Washington Department of Ecology to choose pragmatism over politics. Please move forward with a fair, objective and timely review of the proposed coal-export facility and keep Cowlitz County open for business.

Mike Wallin is a member of the Longview City Council, a member of the Cowlitz County Planning Commission and president of the Lower Columbia Association of Realtors. The opinions expressed are his own.


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