Piping up pays off

Missoula City Councilman Jason Wiener feels emboldened by a recent decision by officials in Washington state to weigh the potential environmental impacts of a planned increase in coal shipments from the Tongue River Basin through Montana.

"We see it as a positive response to our comments," Wiener says. "We have what could be one of the largest coal projects in the world about to go on."

In May 2012, the Missoula City Council joined thousands of citizens and environmental activists, along with tribal, county and municipal governments from across the Northwest, when it called upon regulatory agencies to conduct a comprehensive study of how shipping freshly tapped Tongue River Basin coal deposits to West Coast ports by rail could impact communities along the way.

In June, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not employ such a study. In an unusual move, however, Washington's Department of Ecology announced a month later that it will assess how coal shipments to one of two planned export facilities in that state, the Gateway Pacific Terminal, could impact train traffic in Washington and Montana.

The agency will also evaluate to what extent an increase in coal exports through the Gateway Terminal to Asian markets will affect climate change.

"The project would be responsible for increasing global warming," says Larry Altose, a Department of Ecology spokesperson. "Washington state has serious concerns about global warming related to emissions."

Washington officials along with collaborative agencies received roughly 125,000 comments before making their decision to study the Gateway Terminal during what's called the "scoping," or evaluation, period. Altose says such input helps shape the breadth of a potential environmental analysis. "Scoping really looks at the substance of comments," he says.

That's among the reasons why Wiener feels emboldened. As regulatory agencies now accept public comment on the second proposed export facility, the Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview, Wiener hopes a similar Missoula City Council resolution requesting additional study will also gain traction. "From the last effort, at least we saw something," he says.

Council must officially approve Wiener's pitch before the city makes an official request to regulatory agencies. On Oct. 16, Council's Committee of the Whole will begin discussing the resolution.

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