Trump’s infrastructure order threatens local right to protect the environment

Washington blocked a coal terminal under the Clean Water Act. New rules could subvert that authority.

 

At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is part of the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. Meanwhile, about a thousand miles south in Longview, Washington, on the banks of the Columbia River, decades of industrial waste mar the proposed site for the largest bulk coal terminal in North America.

On the surface, these places may not have much in common, but they’re both part of a simmering nationwide conflict over state and federal power. In the Tongass, that means the Trump administration deferring to Alaska’s desire to rewrite federal rules to promote logging, while in Longview, that looks like an executive order designed to limit a state’s ability to block fossil fuel projects — including the Millennium coal export terminal.  

A recently signed executive order looks to fast-track permitting for coal terminals.
Peabody Energy, Inc./Wikipedia Commons

The Trump administration’s treatment of these areas demonstrates its all-in support for extractive industries. In the name of energy dominance, the federal government is looking to curtail state environmental reviews and promote fossil fuel exports. By doing so, it’s wading into an ongoing fight between coastal and Interior West states over permit denials for export facilities on the West Coast. Where the administration stands on that battle — and its apparent willingness to trample on some states’ regulatory authority — exposes the uniquely flexible nature of its support for states’ rights: It appears interested in shifting power to states only when the goal is less environmental protection.

President Donald Trump’s April 10 executive order was part of a package of directives designed to pave the way for infrastructure like the Millennium coal terminal. In the order, Trump asked the Environmental Protection Agency to rewrite the policies for how Section 401 of the Clean Water Act is implemented. That section of the linchpin federal law gives states and tribes authority over whether to permit facilities that release pollution into federally protected waters within their borders. Trump’s directive declares that the current process “cause(s) confusion and uncertainty, leading to project delays, lost jobs, and reduced economic performance.”

While it’s unclear exactly how the EPA will change the guidelines, environmental lawyers are skeptical that the executive branch has the authority to weaken state and tribal oversight. That’s because the right of states to protect their rivers, lakes and coastal waters is fundamental to the Clean Water Act, and the 401 certification process gives affected communities a voice in that process. Andrew Hawley, a lawyer with the Western Environmental Law Center, put it bluntly: “To undermine that goes straight to the heart of the Clean Water Act.”

The orders come as states are battling over export infrastructure along the Pacific Coast. Fossil fuel-producing states in the Interior West — frustrated that local and state governments in Washington, Oregon and California have stymied a string of projects — see Trump’s directives as a crack in the coast’s green wall. “I stand with governors across the land in asserting our states’ rights to access markets foreign and domestic,” said Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, R, following the orders’ announcement. “The states along the West Coast have abused their authority under section 401 of the Clean Water Act to unfairly discriminate against Wyoming coal.”

Gordon blamed the blocking of export facilities on climate politics, but Washington denied the Longview permit because of local impacts, not big-picture threats. In a summary of the decision, the state’s Department of Ecology wrote that the project “would cause irreparable and unavoidable harm to the Columbia River,” by driving hundreds of pilings into the riverbed, destroying nearly 30 acres of wetlands and aquatic habitat, increasing ship traffic on the Columbia River by 1,680 trips a year, and impairing tribal access to protected fishing sites.

Elsewhere, the Trump administration has sought to shift power to the states — so long as the end result would slash environmental protections. In the past couple years, the Interior Department has implemented policies that defer wildlife management to states, thus allowing controversial hunting practices like killing coyotes and wolves during denning season on national wildlife refuges in Alaska. And the Forest Service is working with Utah and Alaska to weaken restrictions on carving roads into roadless forests. That would mean major changes in areas like the Tongass, where most of the forest is inaccessible to industry.

As some Western states get more leeway to weaken environmental safeguards, green activists are left wondering how far the federal government will go to subvert state regulatory authority in their communities. Diane Dick, who lives just outside the Longview city limits, has spent the better part of a decade fighting the Millennium coal terminal. From the beginning, she said, the fight over the terminal felt bigger than just one project; she’s watched it become a poster child for a national debate over energy infrastructure. Now, as the executive branch tilts the scales against local environmental protection, Dick sees a larger question looming: When and based on what can a community protect itself?

Longview, Washington, residents gather to protest the coal terminal project. The community has been fighting the proposed terminal for years.
Courtesy of Power Past Coal

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, WA.

Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...