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It Takes A Sleuth

coal export facility in Longview

Millennium Bulk Logistics's proposal to construct a coal export facility in Longview (left) on the shores of Washington's Columbia River were withdrawn after Earthjustice revealed that the company planned to boost the annual shipping capacity of the terminal from about 6 million tons to a staggering 80 million tons. Mile-long coal trains would have generated huge volumes of toxic dust as they traveled westward from the interior, disrupting and polluting communities. Left: The existing Longview Terminal. Right: Train cars transporting coal.

Left: Paul Anderson, Right: Tina Jeans / Shutterstock

Earthjustice Attorney Jan Hasselman parked himself at his desk last December and with a keen legal eye started hunting through a mountain of documents.

He was searching for any tidbit of information that could help him prevent construction of the West Coast’s first coal export terminal, which would bring with it noxious coal dust, scores of mile-long trains creating traffic jams, and significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Hasselman pored over a pile of jargon-laden emails and executive memos—all 40,000 pages … enough to make a stack 16 feet high. He read page after page. He scanned. He searched. And then, finally, he found it.

In this Q&A interview, Hasselman discusses the case, and the coal industry's plans for coal export facilities up and down the West Coast that would eventually export tens of millions of tons per year—even as the Northwest region is working to shut down its last two coal-fired power plants because of their global warming impacts.

Why is there so much interest in establishing a coal export terminal on the West Coast?

What changed the game for coal was that in 2007 or 2008 China switched from being a net exporter to a net importer. China is so big that importing 1 or 2 percent of its coal completely turned the market upside down.

The international trading market for coal is actually quite small because big users like the U.S., China and Russia all have their own supply. So the export market has been for countries that don’t have their own coal supplies. The U.S. has exported coal for some time out of the East Coast to Europe and out of the Gulf of Mexico to South America, but it really was the China situation that flipped things around. So, once China became a net importer, it created this enormous incentive to open up the West Coast to Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming and Montana.

What are the threats to the environment and public health from a coal export terminal?

Developing this type of infrastructure will result in another 50 to 100 years of burning coal. If the coal is cheap and available and abundant overseas, why would folks in China look for anything different?

To slow down climate change, we need to radically and rapidly move away from coal because it generates massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. A coal export terminal takes us in the opposite direction. And if you live in Longview there are other important issues to consider. These are dangerous, dirty industrial facilities that will lower the quality of life for residents and make the cities where the facilities are sited less attractive places to live. There are a number of pollution issues. There’s a fire risk and then of course the whole train traffic aspect. We would be potentially doubling the number of trains on our state rail system, which is already at or over capacity. So we would be displacing passenger rail and rail for moving useful goods or things that are made in Washington in favor of exporting Montana and Wyoming’s coal to China. So, it doesn’t make much sense for our local economy here in Washington.

Why was the Longview site chosen?

Right now, there is no U.S. West Coast coal export terminal outside of a very small amount of coal being shipped out of Alaska. There is a limited number of places on the West Coast where you can build a coal export terminal, maybe nine or 10 sites total. Longview just happened to be the first one out of the box. We had heard rumors about a coal export project at Longview, but didn’t have a ton of warning and then all of a sudden it was in our lap. And now we are up to four terminal sites being considered on the West Coast; and, definitely, the coal industry is poking around in other places, too. So this has happened incredibly fast. Longview was the first one to seek permits to build a terminal back in the fall of 2010.

With so much industry investment, how hard will it be to stop a coal export terminal on the West Coast?

There is indeed a lot of investment backing a coal export terminal on the West Coast. There is no end to the amount of money to be made here by Big Coal. But some economists note that this is all driven by China and China is volatile. The Chinese government could come up with a new 10-year plan that expands mining in Mongolia or they could shut down a bunch of old coal plants. And then, all of a sudden, there’s no market anymore.

All that said, I think this is a very winnable battle.

On the local level, once people really think about what these coal terminals look like and how they operate, people are not going to want them in their backyards. What we’ve discovered from polling on the issue is that the more folks know about the coal export terminal, the less they like it. So, when they first hear about it they say, “Hey, somebody wants to open a business in Longview and that’s great.”

Longview is a very industrial place and of course people need jobs. But people in Longview originally didn’t know anything about what was involved with these coal terminals, and the single most effective message or approach was just to show them a picture of an existing coal terminal. And they had no idea it was all open air stock piles of coal and trains running in and out all day with open cars of coal. So, the more we can educate the public about what these coal export terminals are all about, the better chance we have at achieving lasting victories.

A memo uncovered by Hasselman outlined Millennium Bulk Logistics’s secret plan to wait until the Longview terminal was operating and then expand its shipping capacity to a whopping 80 million annual tons. Following a prominent story exposing the company's deception in The New York Times , outrage grew in the media and among Longview residents, forcing Millennium to finally withdraw its permit application.

Hasselman’s legal sleuthing undoubtedly set Millennium back, but the possibility of a second round in the battle looms. If the company does reapply for a permit, Hasselman and his fellow Earthjustice attorneys will again be ready to fight for the health of Longview’s environment and its citizens.

Read comments from our clients on this significant victory at Coal Exporter Withdraws Permit Application , and learn more about this case on our blog, unEARTHED .

Earthjustice Attorney Jan Hasselman:
"The single most effective message or approach was just to show [Longview residents] a picture of an existing coal terminal … the more we can educate the public about what these coal export terminals are all about, the better chance we have at achieving lasting victories." (Learn more about Jan.)

measuring success
Illustration: Matt Lau