Dirty Coal On Its Way to China, Thanks to Cowlitz County

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When Gayle Kiser first heard about the plan to install a coal port close to her timber farm in Cowlitz County, the 15-year resident thought there was no way it would be approved. "I figured this was a no-brainer," she tells Seattle Weekly. "You don't use the Columbia River to export a dirty fuel to China so they can burn it and send the pollution back to us." But thus far, Kiser's no-brainer has turned out to be anything but.

Last week the three-member Board of Commissioners in this rural Southwest Washington county voted to allow a subsidiary of Australia's Ambre Energy to export millions of tons of coal to resource-hungry Asia.

Kiser's trepidation and the controversy surrounding the Cowlitz County board's decision throws into sharp relief one of the great ironies of the environmental movement. While developed nations spooked by climate change are limiting the construction of coal-fired plants within their own boundaries, they're also enabling countries like China by exporting the dirty fuel. And since it takes a big ship to move all that rock, they're also putting more pollutants into the air in the process.

As a result of its coastline and proximity to Wyoming's coal-rich Powder River Basin, companies like Ambre have been scouting ports in Washington for the past few years. Only last week, the Port of Tacoma nixed plans for a $300 million export terminal that would have shipped 20 million tons of coal per year, or roughly four times the amount our state burns in the same amount of time.

Speaking anonymously, some Port of Tacoma insiders told a trade magazine that the terminal deal was shot down because of the potential outcry from environmental activists. Those same activists have now turned their attention to Cowlitz County.

"This permit represents a generation-long commitment of shoreline to a filthy industrial use," says Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice who's representing a number of environmental groups opposed to the coal terminal.

Hasselman and the groups he represents were able to put the fear of God into Tacoma's elected officials because the coal terminal there was to be built on public land. The same can't be said of Cowlitz County, and that's made all the difference in the world.

As Commissioner Mike Karnofski tells the Weekly, while public input was considered--and there was a lot of it; more than 100 people showed up at the hearing last week, about 100 more than normally come--in the end he and his fellow board members really only had to vote on the legality of Ambre's permit. "We relied on the advice of our attorney," he says.

Hasselman thinks Karnofski got bad advice. He and other activists say that they're not just asking Cowlitz County to consider the impact burning coal in China will have on the environment, but also the impact storing and transporting said coal will have on the Columbia and the towns surrounding it. Hasselman says the board failed to do this and a decision to appeal the permit will be made by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, Kiser the tree farmer is skeptical of the promises being made by Ambre. She got into the activism game six years ago, when she successfully fought against the construction of a liquefied natural gas pipeline that would have been built underneath her property and run below the Columbia. And she says she has little reason to be hopeful that Ambre will be a responsible citizen, based on who they tapped to handle their proposed coal terminal.

That would be Joseph Cannon, former Chairman of the Utah GOP, member of a politically powerful family and the current editor of the Deseret News. In 1987, Cannon and some family members bought a mill in Vineyard, Utah, from U.S. Steel. Despite a $110 million guaranteed loan from the federal government, Cannon was unable to continue operation and shut the mill down in 2002. It's now a toxin-rich graveyard that needs approximately $40 million in remediation, a bill that will most likely be picked up by the government.

Cannon was introduced at a meeting last week as the head of Millenium Bulk Logistics, Ambre's American subsidiary. Kiser was at that meeting, and on the way home a thought hit her: "Well, now it's up to the lawyers."

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