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Coal export terminal backer sues Wash. official, alleging bias in permit denial

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Coal export terminal backer sues Wash. official, alleging bias in permit denial

Backers of a proposed coal export terminal in Washington filed a lawsuit in superior court against the state's director of ecology and her department, alleging the state was biased in its denial of a water quality permit required for the project and violated federal and state law.

Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview LLC, a subsidiary of Lighthouse Resources Inc, wants to build the export facility along the Columbia River so western coal producers can more easily access Asian markets.

Washington denied the permits required under the Clean Water Act, or CWA, in September 2017, citing environmental threats, harm to the Columbia River and an increased risk of cancer in the nearby neighborhoods along the rail line leading to the terminal. Lighthouse sued state officials in January, accusing them of improperly blocking the project.

In its complaint against Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, Millennium wrote that the agency "cherry-picked" items found in the project's environmental impact statement to make its decision on water quality certification, though the EIS concluded that the project "would result in no significant environmental effect on water quality, fish, wetlands or aquatic resources, and that any potential impacts could be fully mitigated."

The terminal developers previously appealed the agency's decision to Washington's Pollution Control Hearings Board, claiming the state did not have the authority to deny the permit, and invoked "improper criteria" under the State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA. The board upheld the state's decision in an August ruling.

Millennium asked the Cowlitz County superior court to review and invalidate the department's denial order, review the hearings board's decision to uphold the denial and award damages for "injuries [Millennium] has sustained." The company also wants the court to declare that Bellon and the Ecology Department violated state and federal law "by intentionally misapplying the CWA and SEPA to deprive Millennium of its rights, privileges and immunities," according to the complaint filed Sept. 6.

The complaint accuses Bellon and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee of having a bias against coal. Under Bellon's direction, the department "provided Millennium with a unique and unfair process, driven by political considerations," according to the complaint.

"Rather than applying its standard procedure for handling CWA section 401 applications, Director Bellon instructed Ecology staff to depart from decades of agency practice and to treat Millennium's certification application in a uniquely unfavorable and punitive manner," according to the complaint.

The permit denial was the first time the Ecology Department rejected a CWA section 401 certification with prejudice based on SEPA findings regarding interstate rail traffic, capacity, train emissions and noise, Millennium wrote.

Inslee's deputy director of communications, Tara Lee, said Sept. 6 that staff is "confident the [department] can defend its decisions as the process moves forward."

The Power Past Coal coalition, an alliance of entities opposing West Coast coal exports, said in a statement that Millennium is "attempting to overrule Washington's right to protect its own citizens" from the environmental and health threats associated with the proposed coal terminal.

"Millennium should respect the local and state decisions to deny permits for their project and stop blocking a clean energy future," co-director Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky said.

Wendy Hutchinson, Millennium's senior vice president, said in a press release that the company would have its water quality certification if the state had operated as required under the CWA.

"We look forward to our day in court and have the utmost confidence in the judicial system's ability to appropriately apply the law," Hutchinson said.