SHERIDAN — Residents of Wyoming and Montana expressed mixed reactions to this week’s announcement that the United States Army Corps of Engineers would not pursue a generalized environmental impact study on the exportation of coal to Asia.
In a statement before a congressional subcommittee, acting chief of the Army Corps’ regulatory program Jennifer Moyer told congressmen that while her agency is responsible for overseeing several processes related to the construction of costal shipping ports, the big picture questions of environmental degradation fall beyond its scope.
In speaking about a controversial trio of proposed west coast export terminals, Moyer cited several federal regulations suggesting that, contrary to the desires of many environmental and landowner groups, an EIS is not among her agency’s responsibilities.
“When considered in accordance with the laws and regulations discussed (earlier), many of the activities of concern to the public such as rail traffic, coal mining, shipping coal outside of U.S. territory and the ultimate burning of coal overseas are outside the Corps’ control and responsibility for the permit applications related to the proposed projects,” she said.
As the three projects — Coyote Island of Port of Morrow, Ore.; Millennium Bulk Terminal of Longview, Wash. and the Gateway Pacific Terminal of Bellingham, Wash. — move through the regulatory stages of development, port proponents had worried that an additional study by the Corps would delay construction and the terminals’ subsequent contributions to the regional economy.
But despite the potential economic boon represented by increased exports, some residents believe the move will come with a serious cost.
“This is really hard for me because I understand people want jobs and they need jobs, but this is not the way to get them,” said Belgrade, Mont. resident Jeannie Brown.
Brown is among the residents who stand to be personally affected by increased shipments of coal. An already heavily utilized rail line sits only a couple hundred feet from her front door, and she worries about negative quality of life effects in addition to coal’s contribution to climate change.
Brown said rail traffic near her house has picked up substantially in recent years and that the situation stands to become insufferable if new export terminals are built without proper consideration for landowners.
“I feel like I’m constantly being assaulted,” she said.
On the other side of the debate, Wyoming politicians applauded the decision not to pursue the study. Saying the coal industry “finally caught a break,” Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R–Wyo., touted the potential economic effects of moving forward with the process of shipping coal to Asia.
“Congressman Lummis is pleased that the Army Corps of Engineers has opted to go with a common sense approach to analyzing port impacts rather than the unrealistic evaluation proposed by environmental groups and the (Environmental Protection Agency),” spokesman Christine D’Amico wrote in an e-mail to The Sheridan Press.
At the state level, Rep. Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn, also praised the decision, calling it a step in the right direction for Wyoming coal producers.
“I am hopeful we can continue to develop a delivery system with Oregon and Washington that will support Wyoming coal production,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Meanwhile environmental groups continue working to raise awareness of coal’s damaging effects on global air quality. While groups such as the Northern Plains Resource Council acknowledge coal’s contribution to the area’s economy, members such as Brown believe its harmful effects are largely ignored in the conversations surrounding exports.
According to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal generated 20 percent of all energy consumed by Americans in 2011 but was responsible for 34 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions.
Opponents of the ports worry that an increase in the global use of coal will lead to irreversibly negative effects on both air quality and world climate.