The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has replied to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber regarding the potential scope of its environmental review of expansive new ports on the West Coast, but it remains unclear whether the Corps will include reviews of the impacts of increased coal train traffic through Montana.
The Helena City Commission and Missoula City Council have both asked the Corps to consider impacts of increased train traffic through those cities should the abundant coal from Wyoming and eastern Montana make its way to Asian markets by way of the proposed ports.
The Corps told Kitzhaber June 8 it will conduct analysis beyond the ports themselves “only where the Corps determined that extension to be appropriate under its (National Environmental Policy Act) regulations and other relevant authorities.”
Industry group Count on Coal Montana said this means the Corps is unlikely to conduct an “expansive” Environmental Impact Statement that might address impacts in Montana.
“The good news is that the Army Corps of Engineers is following the law and conducting their EIS specific to the impacts of the terminal construction,” Chuck Denowh, spokesman for the group, said in a statement. “The bad news is that the damage is done — the city councils in Helena and Missoula have wasted taxpayer money in tilting at this windmill, and they’ve diverted their attention from other issues in their communities.”
Richard Whitman, natural resources policy advisor to Kitzhaber, read it differently, calling the Corps letter “opaque.”
“It’s not very clear,” he said by telephone this week. “What is clear is that this is not a final decision.”
The letter indicates continued Corps discussion internally and with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
“It doesn’t rule out looking at both upstream and downstream impacts of coal shipment or transport,” Whitman said.
He also said NEPA specifically calls for agencies to consider the level of public interest when determining the scope of such an analysis.
Helena City Commissioner Katherine Haque-Hausrath, who supported sending the city’s letter, agreed the letter was ambiguous but said it implied the Corps would not conduct the analysis suggested by the city.
“I find it quite disappointing because there will be clear environment impacts on Helena,” she said.
Count on Coal Montana also called the cities’ letters to the Corps a tactic “ginned up by out-of-state environmental groups who want to stop coal development in Montana.”
“Shame on them for supporting an agenda that would come at a cost of thousands of Montana jobs, billions of dollars in economic growth for our state, and hundreds of millions in new tax revenue for local governments,” Denowh wrote.
Haque-Hausrath characterized that statement as “grossly offensive” and “directly contrary to our values of transparency and direct involvement in government.”
“If you look at the public hearing, all the support came from local Helena residents and one of the most vocal opponents was a representative of an out-of-state coal company,” she said.
Kate French of Helena, chair of Sleeping Giant Citizens Council (the local affiliate of Northern Plains Resource Council), said her group would continue its call for a comprehensive EIS, saying it would allow the community to plan infrastructure upgrades, develop strategies to reduce pollution and make companies pay “their fair share” of local costs and give Helena residents a voice in the decisions.
“These out-of-state coal companies — headquartered in places like St. Louis and Australia — stand to make billions of dollars from these proposals,” she said in a statement. “It is no surprise that the out-of-state coal companies — just like the Copper Kings did 100 years ago — are working to silence our community.”
Commissioner Matt Elsaesser, who voted to send the letter to the Corps, did not comment directly on Denowh’s words but said it was reasonable for the commission to ask about the train impacts and that numerous residents had raised those concerns.
Commissioner Dick Thweatt also declined to answer Denowh, and said the Corps’ letter indicated it had not yet decided the scope of its analysis. He said he planned no more involvement with the Corps on the matter.
The commission has directed City Manager Ron Alles to meet with Montana Rail Link officials to discuss potential cooperation on several matters; MRL has suggested it should have been the recipient of the city’s letter to the Corps, a sentiment echoed by Helena Mayor Jim Smith and Commissioner Dan Ellison, who both voted against sending it.
Alles described that meeting with MRL, not yet scheduled, as a broad discussion that could address the potential for a so-called railway quiet zone, the continued development of the Centennial Trail (planned to ultimately connect Spring Meadow Lake State Park on the city’s west side to East Helena, in part using railroad rights-of-way), options at crossings and other issues.
“I want to know what the city of Helena can do to help MRL, too,” Alles said. “So it isn’t just what MRL can do for us.”
Elsaesser, who has worked extensively on the trail project, said a possible quiet zone would include safety improvements (to allow the rail operators to make less noise with their horns), which he said is what the city and railways need to work on, regardless of any potential increase in traffic.
Trail development is part of that safety picture, he said, and cooperation with the railway is crucial to that development.
“I think they have been good to work with,” Elsaesser said of MRL.
Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086 or email@example.com or Twitter.com/IR_SanjayT