How Could We Fight Big Coal?

Screen Shot 2017-12-18 at 11.57.54 AMVictory Over Millennium Coal

By Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director

I remember vividly the phone call seven years ago. A tip about plans to build a Columbia River shipping terminal to export coal to China. Big money, big players, big problem. I hung up and banged my head on my desk. And left it there. How could we fight big coal?

Jump ahead two years: nearly two thousand people in red “no coal” shirts cheered and waved signs as light rain fell on our rally in Longview, Washington. The speakers—a local doctor, pastor, business owner, and Montana rancher—addressed the crowd about the risks of dirty coal. After surveying the sea of red shirts, a longtime Longview resident said: “I’ve never been so proud of my community.”

Jump ahead again, to September 26, 2017. Washington’s Department of Ecology denied a key permit, killing the last coal export terminal proposed on the Columbia. Sure, Millennium will appeal, but they won’t win. Though our region celebrates the victory over Big Coal this fall, that rainy day in Longview may have been the moment we truly won. The passionate local activists, the massive crowd, the record-setting number of written comments, and that new-found sense of pride all led Washington to deny the permit.

How did we fight Big Coal?

Together. We helped build Power Past Coal, a coalition of non-profit, business, health, and faith communities, partnering with tribal nations, working with a common vision and strategy to defeat coal export. Together, we purposefully designed the coalition along the rail lines—from the Powder River Basin to the shipping ports and dozens of communities in between. We helped generate an unprecedented grassroots organizing effort to pack public hearings, earn media stories, and build local leadership.

What was our strategy to beat Big Coal?

Aggressive legal work and community organizing. We braided together grassroots organizing with litigation so that our public actions complemented our legal strategies. We quickly identified the legal hooks to defeat the projects, focused on key decision-makers like the Department of Ecology, and challenged permits along the way. We focused heavily on the Clean Water Act and the State Environmental Policy Act, where we ultimately prevailed.

But all the organizing and lawsuits in the world would not matter without you. You were the most important factor in this victory. You attended hearings, spoke to your neighbors, wrote letters, and made art. You powered the attorneys and organizers. Because of you, 44 million tons of coal per year will stay in the ground instead of sailing down the Columbia River to Asia. You became part of something bigger than yourself. You dreamed of a better future and then took action.

Setting precedent: Another big victory.

Just a week before the Millennium coal victory, we won a critical lawsuit over the largest fracked-gas-to-methanol refinery in the world. The Washington Shorelines Hearing Board ruled that the Port of Kalama violated state law by failing to disclose the methanol refinery’s true greenhouse gas impacts.

The Kalama methanol refinery would use a staggering amount of fracked gas (also called natural gas)—more than all other industrial gas users in Washington combined. Tremendous volumes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, leak into our atmosphere during the drilling, piping, and processing of fracked gas. The environmental impact statement for the Kalama methanol refinery was illegal because it ignored this major source of greenhouse gas pollution. This win sets important precedent: agencies must look at the full, lifecycle impacts of using fracked gas.

Screen Shot 2017-12-18 at 12.01.53 PMWhat’s next?

When the Port of Kalama publishes an honest assessment of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll make sure state and local leaders recognize that building a huge new fracked-gas-to-methanol refinery contradicts Washington’s climate goals.

We extend a heartfelt thank you to our attorneys at Earthjustice and our lawsuit partners, the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity. We are inspired by all the residents of Kalama, Cowlitz County, and the Northwest who continue to organize and mobilize for clean air and water.

Record-Setting Public Opposition

In 2012, our campaign against Millennium coal broke Washington’s record for the number of public comments against a project. Five years later, near the end of the coal export fight, you broke your own record by submitting an unheard-of 260,000 comments against Millennium’s Clean Water Act permit! Big Coal could not wear us down; in fact, we grew stronger.


This feature was originally published in
River Currents 2017 Issue 3 Newsletter – Read it Now

In this Issue: Victory Over Millennium Coal; Reflections on the Eagle Creek Fire; Mentoring the Next Generation of Advocates and Scientists; and more.


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