Rep. Jim Walsh says Department of Ecology’s decision harming state’s future

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The Washington Department of Ecology seems determined to oppose any industrial development in Cowlitz County. And the rest of the 19th Legislative District.

About three weeks ago, Ecology issued an opinion denying a water-quality permit sought by Millennium Bulk Terminals (MBT) to complete its coal export facility. Ecology bureaucrats claimed that the project would cause “significant and unavoidable harm” to nine environmental areas: global air quality, vehicle traffic, vessel traffic, rail capacity, rail safety, noise pollution, social and community resources, cultural resources and tribal access to traditional fishing locations near Bonneville Dam.

A few of these factors—particularly “global air quality”—are not described in any relevant federal or state law. Rationalizing the unprecedented opinion, Ecology Director Maia Bellon relied on some broad rhetorical strokes: “The 1971 State Environmental Policy Act confers an awesome responsibility on the Department of Ecology and that is a responsibility to protect land, air and water for future generations and I take that responsibility very seriously. And future generations deserve no less than the Department of Ecology's decision today to deny the Millennium coal export terminal to be constructed on the shores of the Columbia River. …I am denying Millennium's proposed coal export project.”

Bellon's rhetoric exaggerates slightly. She doesn't have the authority to deny “the project,” just certain permits related to it. Some radical environmentalists echoed Bellon's rhetoric and proclaimed Ecology's opinion the “end of coal” in Washington state. But the actual results aren't so certain. MBT can appeal the opinion—and has indicated that it will.

More important: Few of Ecology's objections have anything to do with the fact that the MBT permit application involves coal. The opinion focuses instead on the trains and ships moving the coal around. So, any major industrial project could be delayed on the same basis.

Answering Bellon's rhetoric, MBT's Bill Chapman said: “Ecology appears to have intentionally disregarded decades of law defining the Clean Water Act…. Multiple recent decisions by the agency seem biased against the Longview community, and particularly blind to the need for employment opportunities in Cowlitz County.”

Former State Attorney General Rob McKenna agrees with Chapman. In his newsletter, McKenna recently noted: “Many suspected, even before its unprecedented 'global EIS' process, that Ecology was determined to find a reason to deny permits for this project.”

Ecology's wandering focus harms more than just the MBT project. In June, Ecology announced a “revised plan to combat global climate change.” This newer version of an older agency plan would give energy-intensive, trade-exposed companies—such as paper mills, aluminum smelters and several other types of plants—more time to comply with new, legally-dubious pollution guidelines.

Under those guidelines, facilities emitting more than 100,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year must reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.7 percent annually. (However, instead of reducing their own emissions, companies owning the facilities could purchase credits from other companies.) The plan would affect the Weyerhaeuser and KapStone facilities in Longview—as well as Cowlitz County's Headquarters Landfill and Puget Sound Energy's Mint Farm Generating Station.

It's important to point out the state has passed no law requiring—or even suggesting—this plan. It's a bureaucratic scheme cooked up with no direct involvement or oversight by any elected official, answerable to voters. Every time schemes like this are brought to the legislature, they're voted down.

In a press release promoting the scheme, Sarah Rees—Ecology's “special assistant on climate change policy”—indulged in familiar, exaggerated rhetoric: “Carbon pollution has reached rampant levels and we're committed to capping and reducing it. Climate change is the most significant environmental issue of our lifetime, and governments need to act now to protect what we have today for future generations.”

Not without the consent of the governed.

There are still other local development projects that are subject to Ecology's opinions. The Port of Longview is cleaning up an old International Paper site that it now owns—the Port is even willing to contribute some of its own money to do a quality job—and needs Ecology's OK to proceed. The proposed fertilizer plant at the Mint Farm will need multiple permits. And oyster farmers west of here are waiting on a permit to battle an invasive shrimp species that's destroying their prime oyster beds.

In the meantime, Ecology's Director offers groovy insights like this: “we feel very comfortable that we are making a down payment on our fair share of solving the climate problems that are not just happening in the state of Washington, but having global impacts.”

Even the Seattle Times editorial board has noticed the troubling drift in Ecology's focus. It recently asked: “How do we ensure that the Department of Ecology's expanded reach—incorporating economic and environmental factors beyond its normal scope—avoids morphing into an exuberant, job-killing agency?”

The Department of Ecology's focus on “global impacts” is a luxury paid for by limiting the prospects for the working people of Cowlitz County. Director Bellon and the other Department of Ecology bureaucrats need to return their focus from global ambitions to local concerns.

State Representative Jim Walsh, 19th Legislative District
428 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 485-0547 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000