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Eugene Weekly : News : 3.10.11

No Clean Coal

Companies look to export coal through the Northwest

By Camilla Mortensen

Perhaps it was the still-lingering shadow of the BP oil spill that spawned a focus on fossil fuel energy issues at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference this year. From the spill itself to the dangers of LNG pipelines, panelists debated dirty oil, dangerous natural gas and not-so-clean coal.

Even as the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign celebrates the upcoming closing of Boardman, Oregon's sole coal-fired powerplant, and halting the construction of 150 proposed coal-fired plants around the country, companies are making plans to export coal from Montana through the Northwest to China.

"Coal is dirty no matter where you burn it," said Jessica Yarnall, an attorney with the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program who spoke on a coal export panel at PIELC. As the U.S. becomes more aware of the environmental and health dangers associated with burning coal and shuts down plants, companies look overseas to make a profit in a neocolonial exploitation of regions with fewer health and environmental protections. Yarnall compared coal giants to the tobacco industry — as tobacco use became less profitable in the U.S. and more and more cities banned indoor smoking, the industry began to look abroad to sell its wares.

Coal burning releases mercury shown to damage the central nervous system, heart and immune system of humans, and affect the reproduction, growth, development and behavior of wildlife, as well as cause death. Mercury pollution has been shown to make its way from China to Oregon and the Northwest and as far east as Texas.

According to Brett VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper, coal giants propose shipping millions of tons of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming to Asia from West Coast ports. Washington's Port of Longview on the Columbia River has been slated as a coal export terminal by Millennium Bulk Terminals, a subsidiary of Australia's Ambre Energy.

If the deal goes through, the Columbia River could be the site of the first major coal export terminal on the West Coast. Bellingham, Wash., is the site of another proposed coal export terminal for Peabody Energy, which recently signed an agreement to also export Powder River Basin coal. Yarnall said the basin's coal is low in sulfur, making it more desirable to companies. High sulfur emissions, when mixed with water, create acid rain.

Lauren Goldberg, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, called the terminal proposal "dirty in terms of climate change." She said public records requests made during an appeal of the county shoreline permit proved that the company had been less than truthful — Millennium said it intended to exportfive million tons a year of coal, but the documents showed 20 million to more than 60 million tons was being considered.

Millennium even attempted to hide its strategizing, Goldberg said, by using a code name —project "Platinum" when discussing the venture. She says when asked about the plans, Millennium CEO Joe Cannon said "I don't want to sound like Bill Clinton here, but it depends on what you mean by ïplans.'"

Columbia Riverkeeper says that the coal export facility's contribution to climate change inducing pollution would not be the only problem. Increased trains shipping coal will hold up traffic along the route and coal dust flying off the rail cars will pollute people, rivers and farms along the rail route and the Columbia River Gorge, and increased coal dust pollution could be expected in the city of Longview.

VandenHeuvel said when it comes to issues such as the siting of a dirty coal terminal on a river like the Columbia, "Certain things are deemed critical and you can't destroy them without filling out a form."

In a development after the close of PIELC, Millennium announced it will remove coal export and related infrastructure from its shoreline development permit while it works on an environmental impact statement, but said the company is still committed to coal. The second largest coal producer in the U.S., Arch Coal, bought a 38 percent interest in Millennium for $25 million in January. VandenHeuvel says, "Millennium continues to deceive the public and hide the fact that they want to build the nation's largest export terminal for dirty coal. No matter how they spin it, the coal wolf can't squeeze into sheep's clothing."

Columbia Riverkeeper is also fighting liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, and several groups in the region are opposing the current use of the Columbia River to facilitate tar sands mining in Canada.