Executives for a company seeking to build a major port to ship U.S. coal to Asia had internal discussions as recently as December on a project that could handle 80 million tons of the fuel annually _ about 15 times the volume disclosed publicly, documents show.
A hearing on the proposal set for Friday before a regulatory panel was cancelled following accusations that the port's backers concealed their plans for a much larger project.
The Millennium Bulk Terminal proposal, along the Columbia River in southwestern Washington state, has stood at the forefront of industry plans to ramp up coal exports using the vast reserves of the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. Those plans are strongly opposed by environmental groups.
Documents obtained Thursday by The Associated Press included e-mails in which executives discussed equipment needed for a port capable of handling far more coal than the roughly 5 million tons a year mentioned in their initial application for the project.
Critics said the discrepancy shows the developers attempted to deceive state and local officials about the scope of their plans to garner needed approvals.
Washington state assistant attorney general Laura Watson declined to comment directly on the port capacity emails, but said any project expanding beyond its stated scope raised concerns for regulators trying to gauge cumulative environmental impacts.
"You don't want to see a project's proponents trying to carve out individual parts of a project and trying to get approvals based on those individual pieces," Watson said.
The Millennium port would be a joint venture between Australia-based Ambre Energy and St. Louis mining giant Arch Coal Inc.
Arch last month bought a 38 percent stake in the project for $25 million plus future considerations.
Millennium chief executive Joe Cannon said Thursday his company conducted extensive design and engineering work on a larger port, but has since shelved those plans at least temporarily.
"All of that was done even by the end of December," Cannon said.
A bigger port would require a new permit application, improvements to existing rail infrastructure and two new docks along the Columbia River, he said.
"If I could wave a wand to get more coal out of there I would do it," he said. "The actual fact is no other permit application was filed other than the permit we have right now."
Arch spokeswoman Kim Link referred questions to Millennium.
The Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper and other environmental groups appealed last month to Washington's Shoreline Hearings Board over a permit awarded for the port by Cowlitz County commissioners.
The environmental groups argued that the port should be blocked in part because it would export pollution from U.S. coal to Asia, where environmental laws generally are more lax. The groups said meeting the rising demand for coal in China, India and other developing nations could exacerbate climate change, because of the large volumes of carbon dioxide released when the fuel is burned.
The state of Washington has intervened on the side of the plaintiffs in the appeal.
Friday's hearing in the case _ on a motion by Millennium to reject portions of the appeal _ was cancelled after attorneys for the company, the Washington Department of Ecology and port opponents entered settlement negotiations, Watson said.
No deal has yet been reached, and it remains unclear what the environmentalists are seeking in order to give up their opposition.
The revelation about the potential scope of the project initially came in a December e-mail exchange involving Ambre chief executive officer Edek Choros. The emails were released by Earthjustice, which is representing the environmental groups in their appeal and obtained the documents through discovery.
Choros wrote about equipping the port with an 84-inch wide conveyor belt to load coal and other "operational improvements" that would let the company "move towards 80 million tonnes per year coal loading capacity."
Tonnes is a reference to metric tons, but it was unclear if that's what Choros meant. If so, that would translate into 88 million tons a year.
Prior documents released in the case have described plans for the "largest coal terminal on the U.S. West Coast" _ a 20-million-tons-a-year operation with the potential for further expansions.
The documents appear to contradict a declaration in the port's application that "there are no other current plans associated with the site."
Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman said he would press company executives on their internal deliberations if the appeal reaches trial, now scheduled for April.
"We will get the CEO on the stand and get him to explain why they lied in their applications," he said.
Cowlitz County Commission Chairman George Raiter said the proposal would have undergone much closer scrutiny if the higher volumes had been revealed prior to the November permit award. That would have included an environmental review lasting a year and a half rather than several months.
But while the county might have added more conditions _ such as railroad crossing upgrades due to increased coal train traffic _ outright rejection was unlikely, Raiter said.
"It would have been a different outcome because traffic impacts would have been immense," he said. "But (coal exports to) China, a railroad from Montana _ we're not responsible for that."
Ambre has been in discussions to buy a coal mine near Decker, Mont.
Arch, the nation's second largest coal producer, operates two mines in the Wyoming portion of the Powder River basin that sold 96 million tons of the fuel in 2009.
Most of the company's coal goes to domestic markets. But Arch is seeking to build up its export business with a potential third mine. The company recently leased reserves near Ashland, Mont., totaling more than a billion tons of coal.