By Don McIntosh
For a construction project to be delayed more than five years while federal agencies work on a 4,000-page environmental impact statement: Is that what Congress intended when it passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969? That’s the question a Longview union official took to Congress Nov. 29, testifying before the House Natural Resources Committee.
“The Building Trades support a thorough permitting process, but that process needs to adhere to the actual regulatory requirements and follow a reasonable timeline,” IBEW Local 48 Business Representative Mike Bridges told committee members at a hearing on “Modernizing NEPA for the 21st Century.” Bridges represents electrical workers in Southwest Washington, and serves as president of the Longview-Kelso Building and Construction Trades Council. IBEW flew him to Washington, D.C., to tell Congress the NEPA process has gone off the rails for projects like the coal export facility Millennium Bulk Terminals has proposed to build in Longview, Washington.
Millennium proposes to redevelop the site — a Reynolds Aluminum smelter that closed in 2000 — as the West Coast’s largest coal export terminal. But the proposal has run into opposition from environmental and community groups, and has had great difficulty getting all the federal, state, and local permits it needs.
Building trades unions have been supporting the project because the company signed a project labor agreement pledging to use union labor, to the tune of 1,350 direct jobs and $70 million in direct wages.
Millennium submitted its permit applications in February 2012. It took three-and-a-half years for the Seattle office of the Army Corps of Engineers to complete the “draft” Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that the federal NEPA law requires. And the final EIS is still unfinished.
“I don’t think Congress would think that a federal NEPA EIS should take six years, especially given the scope of our project,” Wendy Hutchinson, Millennium Vice President of Public Affairs, told the Labor Press. “We’re really a trans-loading facility trying to build two docks on the Columbia River, no different than the hundreds of other docks that the Army Corps has permitted in the Columbia River.”
In his testimony to the House committee, Bridges said NEPA has been used to protract and impede agency officials from making a permit decision, instead of serving as a useful tool to solicit input from the public and educate decision-makers about a proposed project’s environmental pros and cons — as Congress intended.
“NEPA was not enacted to function as a political process to allow members of the public to voice their approval or disapproval of a controversial project,” Bridges said. “Yet the multiple NEPA hearings I attended on the Millennium project functioned as a public voting booth of sorts. At these public hearings, I witnessed singing grandmothers, people dressed as their favorite endangered species, and other theatrical antics, designed not to inform agency officials but to publically protest the project.”
Bridges said building trades unions support responsible and consistent environmental regulations and have been involved in renewable energy projects and environmental improvements at industrial facilities for decades. But they also want jobs building infrastructure for fossil fuels, which are still the main source of energy.
“We get accused even by our members: ‘Why are we supporting a dying industry?’” Bridges told the Labor Press. “I just always remind folks: We don’t get the opportunity to decide what the Port wants to invest in or what a private entity wants to invest in. But we’re going to support responsible, safe projects that provide jobs for our members.”
Millennium has so far spent $15 million on technical work for the state and federal government EIS process, and another $20 million on cleanup of the smelter site, including the removal over 300,000 tons of material.
At the hearing, Committee Chair Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, said like other environmental statutes, NEPA had a noble intent, but was written in too open-ended and vague a manner.
“A common refrain that we are hearing,” Bishop said, “… is that NEPA is used as a tool to slow or block needed infrastructure projects and rural development. Delays, duplications, multiple reviews, add a cost to the program, which drives up the cost of everything from milk to lumber to energy.”
That point got pushback from some Democrats on the committee, including ranking member Raul Grijalva of Arizona. Grijalva says delays are partly the result of federal agency understaffing.
“Since the Republicans took the House majority in 2011 they have renewed their assault on NEPA,” Grijalva said. “They have pushed for drilling, logging, dam-building and other environmentally destructive activities to be conducted without federal agency oversight or public review. … Blaming NEPA for uncovering bad projects is like blaming a tumor on the X-ray that discovered it.”
Grijalva didn’t specifically criticize the Millennium project, or say why it’s taken almost six years to study the impact on water quality of two Columbia River docks.
MORE: Read Bridges’ full testimony here or watch a video of the testimony, and the questioning from members of Congress that ensued, below: