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Labor Blasts State Coal-Port Permit Plan – Calls it ‘Radical Environmental Economic Imperialism’

Union leaders John Risch, national legislative director of the Sheet Metal,  SMART Herb Krohn, SMART's Washington State representative Jeffrey Soth of the Operating Engineers

Union leaders John Risch, national legislative director of the Sheet Metal, Air and Rail Transportation Workers Union,
Herb Krohn, SMART’s Washington state legislative director and Jeffrey Soth, Washington legislative director for the International Union of
Operating Engineers.

OLYMPIA, Sept. 25. – Union officials delivered a blast Wednesday on what appears to be an Inslee-Administration plan to use the environmental permitting process to block coal shipping from the state of Washington.

The state’s unprecedented decision, which would “evaluate” the impact of coal exports to the Far East on the global climate, could spike a pair of proposed port facilities in Longview and the Bellingham area. The tactic ought to disturb anyone concerned about jobs and the economy, said Herb Krohn of the Sheet Metal, Air and Rail Transportation Workers Union. The decision “has the potential to bring all future industrial development to a halt in our state,” he said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

“If this project is blocked, in fact if we were to block all exportation of coal today, it would not prevent the nations of the Far East who seek their own economic development from burning one lump of coal. They would simply buy and burn coal from other countries, coal that is significantly more damaging to the environment, while we lose more middle-class union jobs across America.”

Krohn, the union’s Washington-state legislative director, was joined in Washington, D.C. by John Risch, SMART’s national legislative director, and Jeffrey Soth, the Washington legislative and political director for the International Union of Operating Engineers.  The Inslee Administration’s decision to write a wide-ranging environmental review has cheered the Sierra Club and other green activist organizations in their campaign to block the use of fossil fuels. But it has left business and labor aghast, and it has driven a wedge into the traditional coalition of environmental groups and unions on the Democratic side of the aisle.

The union officials say labor is presenting a united front in favor of the Longview and Cherry Point proposals. The state Labor Council and the national AFL-CIO have already passed resolutions at their conventions endorsing the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. And while the union officials stopped short of suggesting there will be political consequences for Gov. Jay Inslee, whom labor strongly supported in the 2012 campaign, one might take their comments as a strong statement of displeasure.

“Let there be no misunderstanding,” Krohn said. “This is a clear critical choice between the creation of union jobs in America or exporting those jobs to nonunion ports and foreign terminals.”

Ecology Going it Alone

Richards Bay coal terminal in South Africa.

Coal port in action: Richards Bay coal terminal in South Africa.

The state Department of Ecology caused jaws to drop with its July decision to dramatically expand the scope of its review of the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. It is expected to announce a similar decision soon on the Longview project. The decision is a radical departure from standard practice. Normally, before a state or local agency issues a permit, big industrial projects are evaluated on their direct environmental impacts – on waterways and forests and on neighboring properties – and sometimes the permitting process imposes requirements for mitigation. But Ecology has decided to raise what are essentially global issues in its review, and it is raising them in a way no project developer could rebut.

For instance, Ecology will consider the impact of coal-burning on the other side of the world, but it appears it will only consider the impact of potential coal exports from Washington. There are no plans at the present time to consider the fact that China could obtain Wyoming coal from other American or Canadian ports, or that it could obtain the same amount of coal from other nations. Nothing Washington can do will alter the policies of another nation. And even if American exports were to be banned, it might have a more detrimental effect on the environment, because coal obtained from other nations would likely be of a dirtier variety.

Ecology also plans to evaluate the impact of coal trains on the communities through which they pass, from Wyoming to Washington, as well as the impact of the ships that ply the waters of the Pacific. Nothing in Washington law says the state’s environmental review must be confined to the state of Washington, and state officials say they are confident they have the authority to make decisions involving the regulation of interstate and foreign commerce.

Ecology’s tactic has caused a split between state regulators and the feds. Originally Ecology planned to write a joint environmental review with the Army Corps of Engineers. But the two agencies announced their divorce early this month on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, and the Army Corps will write its statement the old-fashioned way.

The Army Corps is doing things in a “reasonable and rational” way, Risch said during the Wednesday conference call. “We are not knuckle draggers. We believe in the need to protect the environment, but we also believe that America needs decent-paying jobs if our country hopes to prosper.”

Could be Used Against Anyone

The Operating Engineers and SMART are the two unions most directly affected by the projects. The Operating Engineers would run the heavy equipment to build the two port facilities – some 2,000 construction jobs would be created. SMART represents railroad workers. Certainly they have a vested interest in seeing the ports built, the union officials acknowledge. But they say every industrial project proposed for the state of Washington could be shot down the same way.

“This project really needs a thorough environmental review, but we can’t have an environmental review that is really all about dilatory tactics,” said Soth of the Operating Engineers. “This is some of the most valuable industrial land on the West Coast, and it just represents such an opportunity for working folks that we hope that opportunity won’t be missed. Frankly, if the dilatory tactics in this environmental review become a tool, we are all going to be in trouble, and we are going to miss out on the incredible economic opportunity this represents for the state.”

The unions see the projects as a shot in the arm for a construction industry that has been flagging since the onset of recession. Nationally construction employment is down 1.7 million jobs since December 2007, a 23 percent decline. And they note that the port facilities would remain in place even after global coal consumption declines, presumably sometime in the future, leaving piers that could serve agriculture, the timber industry and other potential exporters.

The thing that galls them the most, though, is the fact that the same tactic could be deployed against any controversial commodity that might be shipped through Washington. “I don’t understand how any nation would impose this sort of requirement on permitting transportation infrastructure,” Risch said. “Doing so would require the review of every import and export facility in the United States that wants to expand its facility, and review how they produce the commodity, how it is shipped to the ports, or how it will be used after it is exported. This would create a regulatory nightmare.”

Said Krohn, “In our state we have projects and jobs that anyone could attack as un-environmental, yet often the person doing the attacking drinks wine from France, uses an iPad from China or owns an SUV that came from Korea. Every single one of us can be attacked for being un-environmental, as well as every industrial development project.”  

Blame Ecology, Not Inslee

Called for wide-ranging environmental review: Gov. Jay Inslee.

Called for wide-ranging environmental review: Gov. Jay Inslee.

One curious point about the union officials’ criticism is that they are refraining from attacking Inslee. As governor, Inslee oversees policy at the Department of Ecology, and he urged a wide-ranging environmental review in the first place. Inslee has made action on climate change and promotion of clean energy the signature effort of his administration. And perhaps most telling, Inslee joined with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in a letter to the Obama Administration urging a ban on all exports of American coal.

“We are not interested in picking a fight with the governor,” Krohn said. “We supported him. We think the governor tends to be good on labor issues. We are concerned by the tactics that the Department of Ecology is using. The governor himself has been quite noncommittal in terms of trying to make sure that this gets a fair hearing.”

Yet Krohn also said that the Department of Ecology decision represents a form of arrogance, imposing the views of American environmental organizations on the world at large. “We are all environmentalists. We are all concerned about global warming. But we as a nation cannot afford to practice radical environmental economic imperialism by denying developing countries the access to cleaner burning low-sulfur American Powder River Basin coal. That would generate electricity for their growing economies’ electrification projects, because they are trying to improve the lives of their citizens. We in labor urge America and the industrial world to start to work together to find solutions to climate change, together in solidarity, and not scapegoating particular projects. Whether these projects are built or not is not going to prevent the burning of coal anywhere. All it is going to do is kill jobs in this country.”

The union officials demurred when asked if they would go to court to challenge the scope of the review. They said they plan to work within the process, offering their views during the public-comment period on the state’s two environmental impact statements. The environmental reviews are expected to take two years to complete.