It was barely two weeks ago that we reported on the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to “fast track” approval of the Morrow Pacific Project, a coal export terminal on the Columbia River that would move over 8 million tons of coal from rail to barge every year.
This Morrow Pacific Project is one of a handful of proposed export terminals that the industry hopes to build to help link coal from the strip mines of the Powder River Basin to overseas markets. As American demand for coal falls, companies (many foreign owned) are scrambling to access the growing Asian markets.
At issue with the export terminals is the process of review and approval, specifically with regard to the environmental impacts. As we wrote about the Morrow Pacific Project, the Army Corps has, at present, the final word in determining whether or not a terminal can be built. This is due primarily to the “dredge and fill” rules established in section 404 of the Clean Water Act, and the origin of Army Corps decisionmaking harkens all the way back to the Rivers and Harbons Appropriation Act of 1899.
Here’s the problem: in determining whether or not to approve a new facility such as a coal transfer terminal, the Army Corps is only compelled legally to look at the immediate environmental impacts at the site itself. These site-specific reviews wouldn’t take into account any broader of cumulative impacts, like, say, the impacts of coal dust along the route of the rail or barge traffic, nor the even broader and inevitable impacts of the coal’s combustion on mercury pollution and global climate disruption.