Billings Gazette: Montana congressmen rush to keep coal port review on track

BILLINGS – With Montana coal exports in jeopardy, the state’s Republican congressmen are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ignore Indian tribe requests to end environmental review of a Washington coal port.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke petitioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to not abandon the environmental review of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point in Bellingham, Wash. The Lummi Tribe, which has fishing grounds next to Cherry Point, asked the Army Corps in January to the abandon review of the port proposal. The Lummi argue its treaty fishing rights would be violated by the port.

Word began circulating recently that the Corps would honor the Lummi’s request, effectively killing the project.

Daines is scheduled to meet with Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works today to urge the Corps to continue environmental review of the project.

Environmental impact statements are required reports for major projects. The reports advise the public and agencies about a project’s potential negative consequences and presents alternatives for avoiding or reducing consequences.

The EIS for the Cherry Point terminal hasn’t been released, but was expected to be published for public comment in the first half of 2016. The first stages of the environmental review process started in 2012.

Both congressmen told The Gazette that they are only advocating for the Army Corps’ environmental review of Cherry Point to continue, whatever the eventual outcome.

The Lummi’s concerns should be part of that review process. Zinke said by not completing an environmental impact statement on Cherry Point, the Corps would circumvent long-standing federal rules for reviewing major projects.

“It’s unprecedented. There’s a process and the environmental impact statement is the appropriate process,” Zinke said. “I think in this case, they certainly caved into the interest of the Lummis Tribe.”

The Crow Tribe of Montana also has a treaty right to profit from the natural resources of its land. Crow coal is likely to be exported to Japan and South Korea through the Cherry Point port. Daines said both tribes’ interests should be weighed in the Army Corps environmental review.

Daines said concerns about the Army Corps abandoning the public process have been simmering for months. Lawmakers have been encouraging Corps engineers to stay the course since May. But this week, word got back to Congress that the Corps would soon throw the environmental review out.

“We have been hearing that now the Army Corps may indeed stop the process. In other words just end the process,” said Daines, who hurriedly launched a petition in the Senate opposing the move. “I literally was circulating this personally. We’re saying ‘just complete the process. It’s really a process driven request.”