Environmentalists and elected officials in Washington, Oregon and Montana have called on the federal government to look at the cumulative effects of shipping millions of tons of coal via train from Montana and Wyoming to ports on the West Coast.
They worry about increased pollution from coal dust, traffic congestion and climate change impacts from burning the fuel.
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. They said the broad environmental review sought by the industry's critics would have treated coal differently than other commodities exported from the region, such as wheat and lumber.
The Corps previously decided to do more limited studies at two ports in Washington state: Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham and Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview. Federal officials have not decided whether to do a study on a third terminal at Port of Morrow, Ore.
But a top agency official said Tuesday that a more sweeping study to include all three terminals and impacts further afield was not appropriate.
"Many of the activities of concern to the public, such as rail traffic, coal mining, shipping coal outside of U.S. territory, and the ultimate burning of coal overseas, are outside the Corps' control and responsibility," the agency's acting chief of regulatory affairs, Jennifer Moyer, said in testimony submitted to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The three export terminals would create more than 11,000 jobs in the Pacific Northwest, said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. He said his group welcomed the decision against a broad environmental review targeting coal.
Local officials want Congress to step in and order a review, but that appears unlikely in the Republican controlled House because of strong support for the terminals from lawmakers in mining states such as Wyoming, where Rep. Cynthia Lummis denounced the "anti-coal agenda" of port critics.
"Finally, coal catches a break," Lummis said of the Army Corps announcement.
That contrasted sharply with sentiments on the West Coast, where U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, urged the Corps to reverse its decision.
In testimony Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn offered lawmakers a long list of ways coal trains will hurt Washington communities: leaving behind coal dust and diesel exhaust, clogging railroads, ports and roads, polluting air and water and creating traffic problems.
The coal trains don't stop in Seattle, but pass through the city's downtown core, along the Puget Sound.
"The corporations that want to export coal through our communities want us to believe that there's nothing wrong with their plans. But it is my job as mayor of Seattle to stand up to protect our community," McGinn said.
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.
"Unless we can stop these coal terminals from being built and keep our coal in the ground where it belongs, Washington state coal exports will be responsible for hastening the advance of climate change here at home and around the world," McGinn said.
According to a group of environmental advocates and municipal officials in Montana, hundreds of businesses, health officials and citizens have written to the Army Corps, calling for a broad environmental review.
"We won't give up until we make sure our communities aren't paying the costs of coal export," Missoula City Councilor Dave Strohmaier said in a statement.
Earlier 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.