6 states join battle over the largest proposed coal export terminal in the U.S.

Washington state regulators denied two crucial permits for the project last year.

Coal producing states have stepped up to support a proposed coal export terminal in Washington. (CREDIT: Getty Images)
Coal producing states have stepped up to support a proposed coal export terminal in Washington. (CREDIT: Getty Images)

The largest proposed coal export terminal in the United States is getting some help from interior states in a legal battle over whether Washington state regulators were wrong to reject two critical permits for the project.

Last week, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Utah, South Dakota, and Nebraska filed a joint amicus brief in federal court, arguing that the state’s rejection of the permits was overly-broad and could impact any number of commodities shipped from interior states through coastal ports.

Two separate state agencies denied crucial permits for the project last year, which would bring more than 40 million tons of coal annually through a southern Washington port town. The terminal was first proposed in 2010 as a way to bring coal from the interior regions of the country to overseas markets in Asia, but has faced a steep uphill battle against environmental opposition and state regulators.

“Today it is coal, tomorrow it could be natural gas or non-organic produce,” the amicus brief, filed on May 8, read. “The interests of interior states in developing foreign trade are now subject to the barriers erected by the policy whims of states that control access to international markets through their ports.”

The states — many of which have significant financial interests in either coal, natural gas, or agricultural exports — join a coalition of industry groups that also filed a brief in support of the coal export terminal earlier this month.


Like the states, the industry groups — including fossil fuel groups like the National Mining Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, as well as the agricultural industry group the American Farm Bureau Federation — argue that the state regulators’ rejection of critical permits for the project was politically motivated, based more on a dislike of coal export than statutory authority over the project.

“The American Farm Bureau Federation joined the amicus brief because the legal issues raised in this case are much broader than this export facility and coal, they are important to agriculture as well,” Danielle Hallcom Quist, senior counsel for public policy with the American Farm Bureau Federation, told ThinkProgress via email earlier this month.

“Agriculture is heavily dependent on foreign trade and access to port facilities, particularly on the West coast,” Hallcom Quist continued. “If a state were to oppose the export of agricultural products … through its borders, that decision would be very harmful to farmers and ranchers and valuable export markets that are critical to the agricultural economy.”

For its part, the state of Washington maintains that the permitting decisions were based on extensive environmental studies, as well as failure on the part of the developer to provide necessary structural and financial information about the project.

“We remain focused on defending our decision,” a Washington Department of Ecology spokesperson told the Associated Press. “We are confident that it will continue to stand up because it’s based on Washington state law.”

The coal terminal — which was first proposed in 2010 by Millennium Bulk Logistics and later fully acquired by the coal company Lighthouse Resources Inc. — would be located along the Columbia River in Longview, Washington, and would be able to handle some 44 million metric tons of coal annually. A final environmental impact analysis of the project released by the Washington Department of Ecology in May of last year found that the project would add two million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, roughly the same as emissions from 422,467 passenger vehicles driven for an entire year.


The study also found that construction of the terminal would result in unavoidable, detrimental environmental impacts to surrounding communities and waterways. The project would result in a marked increase in train traffic, for instance, with some 16 additional coal trains coming into Longview each day. Those trains would mean an increase in diesel fumes, which would likely raise cancer rates in the low-income and largely minority neighborhood closest to the proposed terminal.

Backers of the project have challenged permit denials by both the state Department of Ecology and the Department of Natural Resources in court, to mixed success. In October, a judge with the Cowlitz County Superior Court ordered the Department of Natural Resources to either approve the lease permit that it had previously denied, or explain its reasoning for the denial. The department has appealed that ruling, and the case is set to be heard by the state Pollution Control Board in late September of this year.

In late April of this year, however, the Washington Shoreline Hearings Board — which decides appeals dealing with impacts to the state’s shoreline — rejected an appeal by the terminal’s developers to overturn the state’s permit denials, ruling that the state had correctly concluded that the project would create unavoidable environmental harm.