SEATTLE -- The state Department of Ecology will undertake a 2-year statewide environmental study of exporting coal through a terminal north of Seattle, officials announced Wednesday.
Meanwhile, as previously announced, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County will study the local impact of coal exports through the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, officials announced.
This is the latest episode in a protracted debate over whether Washington should host export terminals and tracks for trains hauling millions of tons of coal from Montana and Wyoming destined to Asia. Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview, Wash., is also seeking coal exports.
Those proposals have drawn sharp opposition from some elected officials in Washington and Oregon as well as environmental groups, which had been lobbying for environmental impact studies on coal exports. They worry about increased pollution from coal dust, traffic congestion and climate change impacts from burning the fuel.
"This scope is a reflection of Northwest values - the depth and breadth of the scope is absolutely on target and appropriate given the impacts this project would have on our way of life," said Cesia Kearns, campaign director for the Power Past Coal campaign, a group fighting the coal proposal, in a statement.
The coal industry and its backers have pushed aggressively for the new ports, arguing that they could help spur new jobs in parts of the country that are struggling economically.
"This decision has the potential to alter the Northwest's long and historic commitment to expanding trade, which today supports 4 in every 10 jobs in Washington state," said Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, in a statement.
The coal terminals proposed for Washington state would ship a projected 110 million tons of coal to Asia each year, with the majority going through the Bellingham port. Coal exports hit record levels last year, even as domestic markets for the fuel have contracted due to competition from cheap natural gas and emissions restrictions for coal-burning power plants.
The Ecology said the environmental impact study would be ready for public comment in two years.
In June, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against Burlington Northern Santa Fe in federal court in Seattle over coal train dust that blows off trains into Washington rivers and the Puget Sound.
The lawsuit said the railway sends an average of four trains or 480 open-top rail cars through Washington each day carrying coal from mines in Wyoming and Montana to Canada or to the only remaining coal-fired power plant in Washington at Centralia.