A few years ago, there were five coal export terminals proposed in Washington and Oregon. A few months ago, there was one. And as of January 3, there just might be none.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Natural Resources denied Millennium Bulk Terminals permission to sublease state-owned aquatic land for its coal export proposal near Longview. That means that the company, should it want to move forward with the project, will likely have to figure out how to do so without access to a key stretch of the Columbia River.
For many environmental groups, tribes, and activists who have long opposed this and all such proposals in the region, a seemingly minor DNR decision by outgoing state Comissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark sounds the death knell to the very last coal export terminal proposed in the Pacific Northwest.
“They can’t build their terminal without this sublease,” says Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper. “It’s hard to imagine building a coal terminal without the state’s permission.” He adds that his organization has actively opposed the project for the past six years. To them, Tuesday’s decision is a very, very big deal. “We’re thrilled,” he says. “Very hopefuly, this is the end.”
The DNR’s decision “is indeed the final nail in the coffin of this project,” says JoDe Goudy, Chairman of the Yakama Nation, a tribe that has long fought fossil fuel projects along the Columbia River. “We ring in the new year with a major victory for the public,” adds organizer Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky on behalf of the Power Past Coal Coalition. “Once again, the Northwest holds the line on dirty fossil fuels.”
Still, Millennium Bulk Terminals CEO Bill Chapman begs to differ. In a statement, he said that this decision has “no effect on the project moving forward” and referred to the “symbolic gestures” public officials tend to make as they exit office. Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark’s term officially ends on January 11, when Commissioner-elect Hilary Franz will take his post. Franz has long been publicly opposed to fossil fuel infrastructure.
“It’s really up to [Millennium] what they want to do next,” says Carrie McCausland, deputy communcations director at the DNR. It’s not that all avenues are permanently closed to the project, per se. But, she says, “there is no administrative appeal process” once DNR denies permission to lease state aquatic lands. “There is no next step.”
Along with the Longview decision on Tuesday, Goldmark also added 45 acres to a state aquatic reserve near Cherry Point, in Bellingham, land formerly considered for another coal export terminal. Last May, the Lummi Nation won their battle against that project. On Tuesday, Lummi Indian Business Council Chairman Timothy Ballew II thanked Goldmark for extending permanent protection to “the area that the Lummi people call Xwe’chi’eXen. This is an historic day for the Lummi, our treaty rights and our future generations.”
While both decisions “represent the best way to protect and conserve our state’s waterways,” Goldmark said, he specifically cited coal’s financial straits in the Millennium decision. Coal markets in the U.S. and abroad have been plunging in the past few years, as company after company declares bankruptcy. Last year, Millennium’s parent company, Arch Coal, also went bankrupt. Goldmark “noted a chronic pattern of failure by [Millennium] to provide essential and accurate information,” including “about the viability and financial integrity of Millennium and the international coal export business” in the wake of that bankruptcy.
“The finances of coal export don’t make sense right now,” says VandenHeuvel. (Even under a Trump administration, coal’s prospects in general don’t look good.) “The DNR took a really long, hard look at this project. They evaluated the impacts on state and natural resources, they evaluated the finances, and decided this wasn’t a good bet for the use of state lands.”
Naturally, he adds, it’s not in Millennium’s best interest to issue a press release after a decision like this saying “we lost, we’re done.” But “at some point I think we will see that announcement from them. It’s just a matter of time.”