COAL casts its shadow

Approval of six proposed coal export terminals will face national, regional and local opposition. Learn more on both camps.

Following in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark, trains loaded with coal from mines in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming could be converging on the Lower Columbia and other port towns along the Pacific Northwest coast in the next few years, if several proposals for new export terminals are approved.

In what seems like a replay of the LNG saga here, companies are lining up, plucking down hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the permitting process, and carefully picking the ports and counties in which to pitch their proposals. In some cases, coal export terminal proposals are popping up in the same places as LNG terminals that are still pending, or were long ago shelved.

Weary from the LNG fight – which is still going on as the terminal and pipeline proposals switch from import to export – citizen groups, environmental organizations and even some business groups are already gearing up for a series of long battles combating the new proposals for coal export.

Coming on the heels of the largest recession since the 1930s, there are many in the region that argue that coal exports will be a boon to the local economy, and welcome the new proposals. Before one lump of coal has been loaded onto a ship headed to China, the two sides are already flinging numbers and accusations at each other. And the stakes are high, because we’re talking really big numbers here, like up to 100 million short tons of coal a year, or 10% of the current usage of coal in the U.S.

It’s All About Supply and Demand

The fossil fuel industry – including natural gas, oil and coal – is experiencing a boom in the U.S. Prices are rising, mostly due to increased demand from booming Asian economies. Improved technologies have allowed heretofore unattainable reserves to be recovered. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, which uses water and chemicals to force gas and oil out of deep shale formations, has brought prosperity to many towns across the country unseen since the 1970s or even earlier. Tar sands oil from Canada has started to flow to and through the U.S. And new mining techniques are allowing more coal to be recovered from existing and new mine sites. Regulations have been eased to spur the production of more domestic energy.

Due to the recession, rising gasoline prices, better vehicle technology and efficiency, the threat of climate change and associated regulatory changes, demand for fossil fuels has decreased in the U.S. in the last few years. When you take increased supply and add it to decreased domestic demand in a global market where demand is increasing rapidly, you get more pressure to export. LNG import terminals have become export terminals, there’s a net export of finished petroleum products for the first time since the 1950s, and coal exports have almost doubled in the past few years (though still below historic highs in the 1980s and 90s).

And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The Proposals

It turns out that the shortest (and cheapest) route between the Powder River Basin coal mines and China is through Oregon and Washington ports. Therefore, as the map (from an opposition group called Coal Free Northwest) shows, the proposals for terminals and associated rail lines to export Powder River coal are all on the Columbia River or Pacific Ocean (or associated bays) deepwater ports.

Applications for permits and agreements to investigate the potential for coal export at these ports started coming in about a year ago. Let’s travel by train, barge and ship, and follow the black gold to its potential loading and unloading sites in Oregon and Washington. We’ll take several routes from Spokane west, starting with the northern spur to Cherry Point, near the border with Canada and close to North America’s largest existing coal export terminal (operated by Westshore Terminals, shipping over 29 million tons a year in over 200 ships) just north of the Tsawassen ferry terminal in Delta, B.C.

Terminal site, courtesy of the Gateway Pacific Terminal website

Gateway Pacific Terminal
In March of 2011, Pacific International Terminals, a subsidiary of SSA Marine, “one of the largest shipping terminal operators and stevedores in the world” (from the terminal website at, submitted preliminary documents to Whatcom County, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and state agencies to kick off the environmental review process for a proposed deep-water marine terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, between Ferndale and Blaine. The terminal would provide storage and handling of up to 54 million metric tons of exported and imported dry bulk commodities, including coal, grain, iron ore, salts and alumina, but mostly export coal. In a related project, BNSF Railway Inc. has proposed adding rail facilities adjacent to the terminal site and installing a second track along the six-mile Custer Spur.

A permit was issued for a terminal at this site in 1997, but the new proposal has been determined to need a full environmental review, including an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The review will be carried out jointly by the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County. According to Ecology’s web page on the project (, the timeline puts completion of the EIS in 2014, with scoping starting in June of this year, and a draft EIS issued in late 2013. The lead agencies will ask other agencies, tribes and the public what they think should be analyzed in the EIS, including things like stormwater, wetlands, air emissions, noise, and traffic, as part of the scoping process.

For more information on the project review, contact Alice Kelly of Ecology’s Northwest Regional Office at or (425) 649-7128, or if you would like to get on the Whatcom County e-mail subscriber list for the project, send your email address to, and in the subject line type “GPT Subscriber List.”

Heading a little south, we travel along the Yakima/Tacoma branch of the Coal Export Railroad to the Port of Grays Harbor, founded in 1911. Once the leading port for timber export, Grays Harbor now leads the U.S. in exports of soybean meal and is the number one seafood landing point in Washington State. It has been diversifying its portfolio recently, with coal perhaps in the picture in the next few years.

Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad (RailAmerica) Terminal

Terminal 3, proposed site for coal terminal, courtesy of Port of Grays Harbor

In late 2010, RailAmerica officials approached the Port of Grays Harbor about building a coal export terminal at the port’s Marine Terminal 3 near the Hoquiam sewage lagoon. It was once a Rayonier-owned dock and log yard. Willis Enterprises now operates a wood chip facility there.

According to an article in The Daily World, Hoquiam’s daily newspaper, in July 2011, Gary Lewis, RailAmerica’s vice president of industrial development, is quoted as saying that the project will likely be delayed until at least 2013, in order to complete additional studies and planning. The proposed terminal could export up to 5.5 million tons of coal a year from that site, according to Lewis.

Gary Nelson, executive director of the Port of Grays Harbor, told me only that there is a proposal for developing a coal or grain terminal at Terminal 3, with an access agreement signed with the proposed terminal’s operator, which has been in effect for about a year, with “maybe another 90 days to go before considering an extension or further action.”

For more information on this proposal, contact the Port of Grays Harbor at (360) 533-9528, or try Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad at (360) 482-4994.

For our last stop in Washington, we’ll travel from Spokane towards and then along the Columbia River, on the Vancouver spur, to the industrial waterfront of the city of Longview.

Former Reynolds Metals Co. site proposed for coal export terminal, courtesy of The Daily News

Millenium Bulk Terminal
Millennium Bulk Terminals, a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, an Australian company, has proposed building a $600 million export terminal at the former Alcoa aluminum smelter site west of Longview. The company plans to export up to 44 million tons annually by 2018 or 2019, which would mean 16 trains would be traveling through Longview daily to the terminal. County planners have proposed a $200 million plan to upgrade the area’s rail system by 2016 or 2017.

In February, Millennium submitted applications for a Joint Aquatic Resources permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers, a 401 water quality certification to the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology), and a Shoreline Substantial Development Permit and a Shoreline Conditional Use Permit to Cowlitz County. These three agencies will conduct a coordinated environmental review of the proposed facility, similar to the procedures laid out above for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Washington.

An application submitted last year for a much smaller operation was withdrawn after opponents uncovered internal company emails that spoke of hiding the larger numbers from the public.

According to Mike Wojtowicz, the Building & Planning Director for Cowlitz County, the proposed terminal in Longview is about 6-9 months behind the process just getting under way for Gateway Pacific.

The proposal, according to the Millenium website, is to build out the terminal in two phases. The first stage would include the construction of a new dock at the site, and raise the coal export capacity to 25 million metric tons. The second stage would upgrade the existing dock, currently used for import of alumina; and storage on site, currently used for coal for the adjacent Weyerhaeuser pulp and paper mill and other bulk materials, for additional import and export capability, especially for coal export.

For more information, contact Wojtowicz at or 360-577-3065.

And now we’ll continue our tour along the southern banks of the Columbia River, as our train pulls into the Boardman Industrial Park at the Port of Morrow, just east of the town of Boardman, Oregon. Ironically the current site of Oregon’s only coal-fired electricity plant, slated for phaseout by 2020, a different kind of terminal is proposed here, part of a scheme that includes facilities at Port Westward, near Clatskanie.

The Morrow Pacific Project
The Army Corps of Engineers has extended the public comment period to May 5 for the shoreline development permit application submitted by Coyote Island Terminals, LLC, an offshoot of Ambre Energy North America, itself a subsidiary of Ambre Energy in Australia, to develop a new transloading facility for bringing coal in by rail and transferring it to barges on the Columbia River at the Port of Morrow.

Satellite view of the Boardman Industrial Park at the Port of Morrow, site of teh barge loading facility proposed as part of the Morrow Pacific coal export project, courtesy of Google Maps

Comments should be sent to: Mr. Steve Gagnon, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, PO Box 2946, Portland, OR 97208-2946, or e-mailed to Additional information may be obtained from Gagnon at (503) 808-4379 or at the e-mail address above. Reference project #NWP-2012-56.

The coal would be barged from Boardman down the Columbia to Port Westward and loaded onto ocean-going “Panamax” vessels to be shipped to Asia. Initially, approximately 3.85 million tons of coal would be shipped through the facility each year. At maximum capacity, the facility would be able to handle 8.8 million tons. That would translate to approximately 5 trains to Port of Morrow, 5.5 loaded barge tows from Port of Morrow to Port Westward, and 1 Panamax ship to Asia per week initially, increasing to 11 trains, 12 loaded barge tows, and 3 Panamax ships per week at full build out.

In January, Port of St. Helens commissioners unanimously approved a terminal services agreement with Ambre Energy that allows for an initial 5-year lease and options to extend it to 25 years. At this point, the company is doing feasibility studies at Port Westward under the one-year contract, which can be extended another year, and then month-to-month, according to Pat Trapp, the executive director of the port.

For more information, contact Trapp at (503) 397-2888 or The terminal’s web site is at

Continuing along the rail line that runs along the southern banks of the Columbia, we get a great view of the Columbia Gorge and the Portland Metro area before coming to our next stop at Port Westward in Clatskanie. Right near the site of a proposed LNG import terminal that never materialized, another proposal for moving our black gold out via the Columbia River has emerged.

Kinder Morgan Port Westward Project

port westward
Port Westward, Clatskanie, site of proposed coal export terminal, from Kinder Morgan presentation

Kinder Morgan Terminals, “the largest independent terminal operator in North America, with more than 180 terminals that store petroleum products and chemicals, and handle bulk materials like coal, petroleum coke and steel products” (from their website), has proposed to build a $150-200 million coal export terminal at Port Westward, with the potential to move up to 30 million tons of coal obtained by rail from the Powder River Basin.

Port of St. Helens commissioners approved a lease option agreement in January that extends 18 months, with the ability to add another 12 months to that, according to Pat Trapp, the port’s executive director. The port will hold the land for that time, and if both parties agree that the project could go forward, another vote will be taken by the port commissioners on a full-time lease, Trapp told me. The port’s role is to “facilitate collaboration between the project and the community.” All necessary permits would be obtained from the proper agencies once the proposal was given the go-ahead by Kinder Morgan and the port, according to Trapp.

For more information, contact Trapp at (503) 397-2888 or The terminal’s web site is at

One last port of call for the Coal Export train, and that is the Port of Coos Bay, down on the southern Oregon coast. Heading south down the I-5 corridor from Portland, we pass Salem and Eugene, before heading southwest along the recently renovated and reopened Coos Bay Rail Link. Right near the site of the proposed Jordan Cove LNG export terminal, our journey finally ends.

Coos Bay
End of the line at Coos Bay, site of proposed coal export terminal. Photo courtesy of the Port of Coos Bay.

Project Mainstay
Several companies recently approached the Port of Coos Bay with requests for possible development of a bulk facility within the Port’s jurisdiction. The Port asked the various parties to express their plans in an “Expression of Interest”, and these were evaluated using criteria such as experience, environmental record, financial strength, port involvement and project timeline. The winning proposal came from an overseas company, according to Elise Hamner, Communications and Community Affairs Manager at the port. Out of four proposals, three for coal export, Project Mainstay, which would be located on the North Spit (upper middle of the photo) on 80 acres and have a capacity of 6-10 million tons of coal (the smallest of the four proposals evaluated), won in every category of the evaluation. Project Glory proposed a 26 million ton throughput, but came in dead last.

An “exclusive negotiating agreement” was entered into between the port and Project Mainstay, which expires on April 15. According to Hamner, it will likely be extended. The goals of the agreement are to come to financial terms on the sale or lease of port property, establish a timeframe for development and permitting, agree on design, set a target date for start of operations, and get reasonable financial and volume guarantees from the operator. The identity of the potential operator of the coal export terminal is being withheld due to a confidentiality agreement.

For more information on Project Mainstay, contact Hamner at or (541) 267-7678, or search through the commissioner packets at and, the meeting minutes at, and the public requests page at from July 2011 to the present.

The Opposition

Back in 2004 when proposals for LNG terminals started coming in, the opposition was mostly composed of small, local groups near the proposed sites. It wasn’t until the routes for the pipelines associated with these terminals became known that bigger groups, such as Columbia Riverkeeper, became involved

Not so for coal export. The opposition has been organized and broad-based from the start.

Beyond Coal Campaign
On the national level, there is the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign ( From humble beginnings in 2002, the campaign has grown into “a force to be reckoned with,” says its leader, Mary Ann Witt. According to Witt, over 150 proposed coal-fired power plants have been stopped. No new proposals have been submitted in the past few years.

In addition to stopping new plants, Beyond Coal has a goal of retiring one-third of the existing coal-fired energy plants and replacing them with clean energy. They’re about a fourth of the way there.

The campaign’s Coal Exports leader is Cesia Kearns, who works out of the Portland Sierra Club office. A veteran of these types of campaigns, Kearns told me, “the coal companies will have a fight if they pursue these coal export terminals.” The campaign has already filed a lawsuit against the Port of Coos Bay for charging them to view documents related to the Project Mainstay proposed export terminal there, and the local district attorney has ruled in the campaign’s favor. And they sponsored a rally in Salem on April 9, where they attended the State Land Board meeting and presented petitions to stop the Oregon-based terminals.

Power Past Coal
“A growing coalition of organizations sharing a common interest to prevent the West Coast from becoming a high volume coal corridor,” Power Past Coal ( is an opposition coalition of groups including Climate Solutions, Columbia Riverkeeper, Earthjustice, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

Columbia Riverkeeper
One of the Power Past Coal coalition partners, Columbia Riverkeeper (, is no stranger to fossil fuel export schemes. They are currently the lead organization in the fight to stop the LNG terminal proposed for the Skipanon Peninsula in Warrenton, and have ties to groups fighting the pipeline associated with this project. Originally proposed as import terminals, the two remaining west coast proposals, Oregon LNG in Warrenton and Jordan Cove LNG in Coos Bay, are looking into applying to export LNG to Asia.

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, summed up the group’s objections to coal export along the Columbia River to me in a conversation we had a couple of weeks ago.

“Do we protect our quality of life in a vibrant estuary and coast or do we sacrifice it for dirty coal and LNG? The residents view the lower Columbia as a healthy place to work and raise a family. The gas and coal giants see a convenient location for massive industrialization. These are not compatible views. We can’t have both. Coal giants are seeking approval to make the lower Columbia the world’s largest exporter of dirty coal.  This would dramatically change the face of our communities and our river.

“Coal is dirty. It contains toxic pollution like mercury and lead. Hundreds of doctors have taken a stand against bringing coal to our towns because coal is linked to increased cancer, lung disease, and asthma. The costs are too great.

“Our communities would bear the brunt of shipping coal to China.  Dirty coal trains and terminals would foul our water and air.

“Building the world’s largest coal export terminals is not compatible with protecting salmon. Salmon need clean water and healthy habitat, not dirty coal. Studies have shown that coal terminals are a source of toxic pollution and that the coal dust harms salmon.  We don’t need any more slaps to our fishing industry.

Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community (, originally organized against LNG pipelines in the Longview area, has now shifted focus, and is fighting the Millenium Bulk Terminals proposed coal export terminal in Longview.

Citizens for a Clean Harbor ( has formed to fight the proposed RailAmerica terminal at the Port of Grays Harbor in Hoquiam.

Coal Derail
Photo by Paul K. Anderson,, from the website

Communities for a Coal-Free Gorge ( “envisions a Columbia River Gorge where the people can determine what materials are allowable for transport through their communities and watersheds.”

Coal Train Facts ( has organized to fight the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Washington.
Though many of the effects of coal export will be felt by those of us who happen to live in the Columbia Pacific region, the larger implications of the export of Powder River Basin coal to Asia will be felt around the globe. While global energy companies and their associates will continue to reap large profits from their investments, in what can only be called “the tragedy of the market”, the continued use of coal to fuel the growing economies of Asia and elsewhere could inevitably destroy the planet through climate change and the runaway greenhouse effect.

Mike Wojtowicz, the Planning & Building Director for Cowlitz County, told me he was frustrated with the lack of a clear national energy policy, which resulted in Cowlitz County fighting the state Department of Ecology and other agencies over the rules regarding siting of coal export terminals. Pat Trapp, the executive director of the Port of St. Helens, countered that the coal being exported to Asia is private property, and restricting the flow of goods between private parties is not something the government should do.

But one has to wonder, if there’s a reasonable chance that coal export from the Pacific Northwest could contribute to accelerated climate change and global havoc, should we not pause and think through the consequences of this job-creating, economy-stimulating endeavor?

Coal Trivia

1. What state in the U.S. has the largest coal reserves?2. What is coking coal used for? Steam coal? How is coal made?

3. Which country has an advanced coal liquefaction industry and what country developed the technology for this process during what event?

4. Which country has the world’s highest reserves of coal?

5. Which country uses the most coal?

6. When will peak coal arrive?


1. Alaska
2. Coking coal – steel; steam coal – electricity; coal is made from living matter, pressure, heat and time
3. South Africa; Germany; WWII
4. U.S.
5. China
6. 2030-2100 depending on economic growth


Northwest Coal Exports – Project of the Sightline Institute

Important Action from EPA on Coal Exports, Strongly Worded Letter from EPA Warns of Health Impacts of Coal Export, Urges Comprehensive Review – from the Columbia Riverkeeper website

Coal Free PSE – a new project of the Beyond Coal campaign

US Coal Market: Export Potential – a news feature

STOP COAL – a group opposing the Roberts Bank coal port and other proposed ports in B.C.

Miner Ambre Energy in financial trouble as Queensland rejects its coalmine project – from The Australian newspaper

Coal Project Fires Up Public Interest – from the East Oregonian newspaper and OPB News

“Desperate” To Export: A Coal Industry Close-Up – from Ecotrope, OPB’s environmental blog

Westshore provides glimpse of Longview’s potential future with coal – from The Daily News newspaper in Longview

EarthFix Conversations: Coal Coming Through A Community Near You? – from KUOW’s EarthFix environmental news blog

Gateway Pacific Terminal Project – from Whatcom County’s Planning & Development Services web page

Coal Export Terminal – special section in The Daily News newspaper

Port Westward Coal Project Feedback Form – from the Port of St. Helens website

Here’s A Case For Coal – article in Columbia River Business Journal


By Bob Goldberg

Bob moved to Astoria from Seattle in 2005, on the day Katrina hit New Orleans. He started writing for HIPFiSH in 2007. With a previous career as an environmental engineer with the Washington State Department of Ecology and a researcher at various companies and national labs, Bob tries to bring his scientific (i.e. objective) background to journalism. Outside the HIPFiSH world, Bob does programming on KMUN radio, sings tenor in the North Coast Chorale, tutors at Clatsop Community College, and helps with websites. He lives in Astoria with his beautiful and wonderful wife, his son and two cats.

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