SEATTLE - Efforts by the U.S. coal industry to expand its export market have taken a significant step forward Tuesday, as officials in Washington state approved a plan to ship the fuel to Asia through a Columbia River port.
Cowlitz County commissioners voted Tuesday to allow a subsidiary of Australia-based Ambre Energy to redevelop a port near Longview to handle 5 million tons of coal annually.
The project, about 40 miles north of Portland, Ore., would be the first of several proposed new coal terminals on the West Coast. It would serve mines in Montana and Wyoming, where a region known as the Powder River Basin holds some of the largest coal reserves in the world.
Several environmental groups want to halt the project. They say it runs counter to efforts by Washington, Oregon and other states to curb their own greenhouse gas emissions -- and will simply shift those emissions overseas.
The commissioners "drew a bubble around the project, and ignored every effect outside of that bubble," said Jan Hasselman, a staff attorney with Earthjustice. "They ignored the effect of trains coming through Columbia Gorge, the effects of increased mining, the effects of mercury blowing back from China."
Hasselman said environmental groups are considering appealing the permit to the state Shorelines Hearings Board.
Cowlitz commissioners on Tuesday approved a shoreline development permit for the project. The county's planning department had concluded there would be no significant environmental impact from the project if certain conditions were met.
"We had to look at the shorelines permit itself," based on legal advice we received, said Commissioner Mike Karnofski. "There were other issues associated, such concerns about greenhouse gases. But that was outside of the parameters of the shorelines permit."
Mike Wojtowicz, the Cowlitz County building and planning director, said "the issues that were raised were all mitigated and didn't rise to that level" of a fuller environmental impact statement.
But Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Hood River, Ore.-based Columbia Riverkeeper, said the county should have completed a broader environmental analysis. "We think exporting millions of tons of coal to China is clearly a significant impact," he said.
An Ambre subsidiary, Millennium Bulk Logistics, is handling the project, which includes dredging the river to accommodate large vessels and the installation of conveyor belts and other equipment. The company has applied for a permit with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for dredging work, said corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser.
Representatives of Ambre Energy did not immediately return telephone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Last week, Jeff Torkington, corporate executive officer of Ambre Energy North America, said, "We are committed to providing more efficient energies with our coal resources," the Longview Daily News reported.
Millenium hopes to begin exporting coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana by the end of 2011 or early 2012, the newspaper reported.