Longview Considers Coal Exports At Former Aluminum Plant

May 24, 2012

Residents of Longview, Wash., want to see a new industry take over the old Reynolds aluminum smelter site south of town. But they disagree over whether a proposed coal export terminal will be a good fit. Cassandra Profita reports.

On a 400-acre industrial site near Longview, Wash., a company called Millennium Bulk Terminals is cleaning up a pretty big mess.

Bennett: “This is the unpermitted conveyor that we’re taking down.”

That’s Peter Bennett, vice president of business development for Millennium.

Bennett: “You wouldn't ever receive a permit to be allowed to do what they did.”

His company agreed to take over the old Reynolds Aluminum smelter site and demolish dilapidated buildings, remove piles of dry bulk products, and clear away contamination.

When all that’s done, the company might begin the project it came to Longview to do. That is, exporting 44 million tons of coal from Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Utah to Asia.

The company says that project will create 135 permanent jobs and $2 million in local tax revenue. But the idea of exporting coal has raised concerns about rail traffic and coal dust and sparked a serious debate over the town's future.

Locals will tell you that Longview has always been an industry town. A wall of pulp and paper mills, log yards and a brand new grain export terminal hug the bank of the Columbia River.

A road called Industrial Way neatly divides the mills from the commercial and residential areas. Bennett says that's part of what drew Millenium to the town.

Bennett: "Mr. Long was very foreseeing. When he developed Longview, he developed an industrial corridor of which we're a part, and a business district, and a residential district. This just makes it such a perfect site because it is industrial."

But the Millennium project seems to be dividing the town along new lines. Between people who want to see jobs and revenue created on an underutilized piece of industrial property and people who don't want coal coming through town.

Millennium's plans involve unloading coal from rail cars in a covered building and loading it onto ships on the Columbia River.

Gary Lindstrom spent 17 years marketing industrial projects for the Port of Longview. He says there's a glaring problem with this plan. Coal trains coming into town would stop traffic on major roads at four different crossings.

On a rainy day in Longview, Lindstrom is driving through town and pointing out all the places where cars and trucks cross the train tracks. And where they would have to stop to let coal trains through.

Lindstrom: “The train will I think pretty much block all of these intersections at the same time at one point so while the front end of the train might be down here at Oregon Way and Industrial in this area, the tail end is going to be back there at Third Avenue.”

Lindstrom says everyone – including Millennium – thinks the coal export project would simply put too much railroad traffic on the streets of Longview.

Lindstrom: “I mean, we would be sitting here at this track for 10-12 minutes waiting for a train to go by. And you’d do that 18 times a day.”

Millennium has one of six coal export proposals in the Northwest. And they’ve all drawn opposition for their potential to clog up traffic. But Millennium has two potential solutions to this problem.

For one thing, the company says it has a lot of extra acreage where it can store the empty mile-long trains after deliveries to avoid traffic jams.

And then there’s this. Local leaders have been expecting a surge in exports in Longview ever since the Army Corps of Engineers deepened the Columbia River Channel for bigger ships.

For years, they’ve been planning a $200 million upgrade to Longview’s rail lines that would create overpasses and underpasses and separate the trains from the street traffic.

The plan would address most of Lindstrom’s concerns. Though it isn’t clear yet who would pay for it and how soon it will be done.

And there’s still a bigger debate over whether coal exports are the kind of industry the town wants to see in the future.

Dan Coffman is the president of the local longshoremen’s union, which would be hired to load coal onto outgoing ships. The project would add 85 new members to his ranks. So he likes the idea.

Coffman: “I could see my union growing to maybe 400 plus and when I first started here in 1974 I think our membership was at about 450, so we could be getting back to the numbers we had when I first started here thirty-some years ago."

But Longview native Teresa Purcell says the town can find a better business to provide jobs. One that won’t send coal dust blowing along the rail lines or the waterfront.

Purcell: “I remember the days when my mom would have to walk out and basically check the air quality before we could go out and play. The industries here have done so much to improve the air quality and be good environmental corporate citizens. So the whole concept of this coal terminal when this came up was just going in the wrong direction.”

Millennium has tried to assure residents that coal dust won’t be a problem. Bennett says there are ways to control coal dust from the mine to the outgoing ship.

Bennett: “Whenever anything touches that coal that could generate dust it will be in a closed environment with dust suppression. So you say do we believe there will be a dust problem. No, there will not be a dust problem.”

And in the meantime, Millennium still has a lot of work to do – removing piles of petroleum coke and unusable alumina and tearing down warehouses – before a coal export terminal can be permitted.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio