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What? Army Corps Suddenly Decides Coal Trains Won’t Harm Salmon-Filled Columbia River

At the Longview Millennium coal export facility, water protectors know coal dust is like a pipeline accident that happens daily.

Forget the presidential campaign (for a minute). It’s so much easier to be confused by the energy and climate debate within the Obama administration.

Buckle up. There is a danger of whiplash.

In May, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for a coal shipping terminal north of Bellingham in Washington. The $700 million project would have interfered with the Lummi Nation’s treaty rights to fish for salmon. “The Gateway Pacific Terminal would have a greater than de minimus impact on the Lummi Nation’s (treaty) rights,” said Seattle District Commander Col. John Buck.

So no permit. Whew! The Army Corps gets it. Progress.

Then, in August, the same Army Corps winked and nodded and gave its OK to the Dakota Access pipeline, allowing it to proceed with a permit (but no easement) to begin drilling under the Missouri River. That action, of course, led to the Standing Rock movement, and now thousands of people are camped in southern North Dakota to stop the pipeline’s construction and protect the water from a potential oil spill. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, like the Lummi, are a treaty tribe, and while the lands in this case are off the reservation, there is a federal requirement to consult with the tribe. And a moral one in this case because any leak would contaminate the tribe’s water source. (Notably, the route was moved away from Bismarck because of the threat to that city’s water.)

Nonetheless, the Army Corps let the pipeline proceed. Boo. The government doesn’t get it.

Then in September, sunshine. The Army Corps, joined by the departments of Interior and Justice, said it would re-evaluate the pipeline’s permit and review the tribal consultation process.

No permit. Yay! The government does get it.

Well, no. The Army Corps, the same agency, the same office that a few months ago championed treaty rights for the Lummi Nation, now says another major coal terminal 200 miles down the road in Washington is just fine. A couple weeks ago, the Corps released a draft environmental impact statement for the Millennium Bulk Terminal port in Longview. The project would ship coal from Montana and Wyoming out of a port on the Columbia River.

The statement points out that “salmon are central to the spiritual and cultural identity of all Columbia River tribes. Tribal members gather and camp at multiple sites along the Columbia River beginning in May and many stay until fall to harvest salmon and steelhead from the Columbia River and its tributaries.” But unlike a few months ago, this time the Corps figures dirty coal trains won’t impact the salmon runs.

No, the report doesn’t say that. “Coal could enter water as either coal dust or as the result of a coal spill,” the draft EIS says. But it does give this dismissal: “The potential risk for exposure to toxic chemicals contained in coal would be low because they tend to be bound to the matrix structure and not easily leached. Coal dust particles would likely be transported downriver by river flow and either carried out to sea or distributed over a sufficiently broad area that a measurable increase in concentrations of toxic chemicals in the Columbia River would be unlikely.”

Except salmon are also in the river flow in that same “sufficiently broad area.”

The Army Corps will accept public comments until late November. But let’s be clear: This terminal must not be built. You can add up all of the reasons that the Dakota Access pipeline is a bad idea, but they are multiplied when the fossil fuel is coal moving on trains. Coal dust is a pipeline accident that will happen daily.

As Eric DePlace of Sightline has pointed out, “Coal trains mean coal dust — period. So much coal dust escapes from the open-top rail cars used for transporting coal that it can create safety problems for rail traffic. … Given the coal export industry’s designs on the Northwest, it is important for residents to know more about the coal dust hazard.”

The environmental impact statement has a curious approach to factoring climate change. It looks at the carbon impact of the terminal itself but fails to count emissions along the way or add that the coal will eventually be burned after shipping.

That alone ought to be a fatal flaw. Especially when just a few days ago President Obama so eloquently called the Paris Agreement the best shot we have to save the planet.

That’s impossible while we build pipelines, and that’s impossible while we plan a new shipment point for coal. This is the next Standing Rock. The Longview Millennium coal export facility must never be built.