Tuesday evening a chemical fire started at a an industrial facility on the Washington side of the Columbia River, providing Oregonians a glimpse of the kind of neighbor we’ll be dealing with if Utah-based Millennium Bulk Logistics is allowed to move ahead with its plan to export coal from a port in Longview, Washington.
Fortunately no one was killed or seriously injured, but this event convinces me of one thing: I don’t want to have Millennium as a neighbor.
According to the Longview Daily News, the fire was reported at 6:36pm Tuesday and was brought under control by emergency response teams. So far as I’m aware the cause of the fire has yet to be determined. It’s also unclear what the health effects for people in the surrounding area might be, as fires at industrial sites come with the added risk that hazardous chemicals might be disseminated by smoke.
What’s clear is fallout from the accident could have been much worse. The Cowlitz County Sherriff’s Office had originally feared a tank of sulfuric acid might be “involved” in the blaze, and luckily that doesn’t seem to have been the case.
What does the fire say about Millennium, owner of the facility where it occurred? Last year Millennium leased the site from Chinook Ventures, which acquired it from Reynolds Metals/Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the US. When Alcoa pulled out it left behind a mess of cyanide, fluoride, and other toxins it still hasn’t cleaned up, despite being required to do so by law. Millennium stepped onto the scene in 2010, promising to make the site clean while using it to export US coal abroad to China and other markets. A yet-to-be built coal port in Boardman, Oregon, proposed by the Australian company that owns Millennium, would send coal downriver to Longview.
So far Millennium hasn’t just failed to put the Longview site to good use: they’ve presided over an industrial fire that could have turned out to be much, much worse than it was. Of course accidents happen, even at the most carefully maintained facilities. But Millennium’s track record in the Northwest so far doesn’t make me excited about having them around.
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Tellingly this isn’t the first clue we’ve had that Millennium won’t be a good neighbor. While applying for a permit last year the company lied to officials in Cowlitz County, saying they wanted to export 5.7 million tons of coal per year, while documents released early this year show they were actually making plans to export 25-60 million tons.
To that add the fact that the very idea of exporting coal is disastrous from a climate and environmental perspective. By further linking US coal reserves to demand in China and other Asian markets, Millennium’s export proposal would stoke the fires of climate change, encouraging developing countries to remain dependent on dirty fuel instead of shifting to cleaner energy. Increased traffic from coal trains moving through the Columbia Gorge would pollute scenic areas, expose rail line communities to coal dust and diesel fumes, hold up traffic at rail crossings, and congest valuable rail lines.
It’s been clear from the beginning that Millennium’s proposal was a climate bomb waiting to happen. Now they’ve shown they’re willing to lie to communities they work with, and that they can’t be trusted to keep a site safe from accidents.
While Tuesday’s fire will have mainly local impacts, a future accident at the Millennium facility could impact both Oregon and Washington. That’s exactly what happened early last year, when then-owner Chinook Ventures spilled at least 25 cubic yards of toxic pet coke into the Columbia River. The Columbia is a resource shared by our two states, and irresponsible industry on one side of the river ultimately affects both shores.
I hope Oregon leaders, including Governor Kitzhaber, will lead by example and take a stand against coal exports, influencing their colleagues in Washington to do the same. Having withdrawn their initial permit application when it was revealed they’d lied to local officials, Millennium is expected to submit a new proposal for a coal export terminal soon.
When that happens, Oregon officials should use every option available to them to protect the Columbia from a Millennium coal exports project. And they should strongly urge their Washington colleagues to do the same.