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The state Department of Ecology on Wednesday announced it was launching an environmental review, unprecedented in scope, of a proposed coal-export terminal near Bellingham.

The scope of the review will range from other Western states that would see increased numbers of coal trains to Asia, where coal combustion will create greenhouse gases.

The state review of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point in Northwest Washington is expected to take some two years to complete. It will be coordinated with more limited reviews conducted by Whatcom County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The proposed terminal, which would export up to 48 million tons of coal a year to Asia, has emerged as one of the most controversial development proposals of recent decades. About 125,000 public comments were received by state, federal and local agencies during a 121-day period last fall and winter.

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Proponents praise the terminal, and a second one proposed for Longview, as important boosts to a state economy heavily dependent on international trade. Opponents have decried the export of a carbon-rich fuel that contributes to climate change and the impact of increased train traffic in many communities.

The state review also includes an examination of impacts on human health in Washington, and cargo-ship impacts that stretch beyond Washington waters.

Both opponents and proponents of the project agreed the scope of the review is unprecedented.

Terminal opponents say that is a good thing.

“The scope is a reflection of Northwest values — the depth and breadth of the scope is absolutely on target and appropriate given the impacts on our way of life,” said Cesia Kearns, campaign director for the Power Past Coal campaign.

Terminal proponents say the state review is an overreach that could scare off developers of future projects.

“We are disappointed the state Department of Ecology has chosen to depart from the stringent, well-established process followed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway, which operates the trains that would carry coal from Montana and Wyoming.

“This decision has the potential to alter the Northwest’s long and historic commitment to expanding trade, which today supports four in every 10 jobs in Washington state,” added Lauri Hennessey, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports.

Josh Baldi, a Department of Ecology official, said Wednesday that the scope of this review does not signal that other projects will get similar treatment. State environmental reviews, he said, are decided on a case-by-case basis.

Backers of the proposed Longview terminal say that’s the way it should be. Environmental review of that proposed terminal,

at a site where an aluminum smelter once operated, is still months from getting under way.

“While the Gateway scope is precedent-setting, we agree that these are different projects with separate environmental reviews,” said Ken Miller, president of Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview.

The coordinated review will help guide government officials involved in issuing permits for the project. Permits are needed from several federal, state and local agencies.

In Whatcom County, final permit approval also is needed from the County Council.

The state’s decision to examine coal emissions from carbon combustion in Asia is likely to be one of the most scrutinized parts of the final study. But it is unclear how much it can affect permitting decisions.

“We don’t have regulations, per se, to address this issue,” Baldi said.

The maximum amount of coal proposed for export, 48 million tons, is a fraction of the amount consumed in Asia.

China alone burned about 3.5 billion tons in 2012, nearly as much as the rest of the world combined.

From another perspective, the amount of carbon emissions created by transporting and burning that coal would exceed the carbon emissions of all other activities in Washington state combined, according to Baldi.

Bob Watters, a spokesman for SSA Marine, developer of the Gateway terminal, said he is encouraged that the studies are finally getting under way. He believes the science gathered through the process will help bolster the case for the terminal.

While he disagrees with the scope of the state review, Watters said, “At the end of the day, they can study whatever they want, and we will support them.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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