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    Coos Bay's dirty little (coal) secret

    The port of Coos Bay, Ore. admits it's in talks with a company interested in developing the site into a coal terminal, but it won't say who. Critics of the shadowy project say the port is trying to avoid facing the potential health and environmental impacts.

    A ship sits in Oregon's Coos Bay.

    A ship sits in Oregon's Coos Bay. Jeff Arsenault (cc)

    Has the Port of Coos Bay, Oregon, been hiding something? Environmental critics say it has. The port says otherwise. Either way, the whole dispute will become largely moot this month if the port, as anticipated, tells the world which company has been talking to it about building an export terminal capable of shipping 10 million tons of coal a year from the Oregon coast.

    But — as in Bellingham and Longview — the announcement won't make the controversy over coal exports go away.

    The Coos Bay port has made no secret of the fact that it has been talking with someone about "Project Mainstay," the plan to export Powder River Basin coal, or that the private Jordan Cove Energy Project, which has already gotten preliminary FERC approval to import liquified natural gas through Coos Bay, now wants to export liquified natural gas instead.  

    The Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL) has already issued a permit allowing the port to dredge a 45-foot-deep channel (currently the channel is only 37 feet deep). In an appeal of the permit, environmental groups have called the proposed deepening "the single largest estuarine removal-fill project ever permitted" by DSL. 

    In order to move future cargo through Oregon's Coast mountain range, the port has also revived a freight railroad that was shut down in 2007. And the port has recently acknowledged talking with an — unnamed — company that wants to get federal money for the Pacific Coast's first offshore wind power project, which would be staged from Coos Bay.

    Although the port has acknowledged since January that it has been talking to someone about a coal terminal, it has not revealed which company wants to ship the coal. It has signed a non-disclosure agreement with the prospective shipper. That agreement expires this month.

    In the meantime, the Sierra Club and Beyond Toxics have filed requests for public records, for which the port has said it would charge them each about twenty thousand bucks. The groups seeking records have gone to court and gotten a fee waiver. The port has appealed.

    Why has a public entity been so reluctant to allow public access to its records? In the first place, says port communications manager, Elise Hamner, the coal terminal "is not a project at this point, it is a concept," and "we've shared everything we know about it . . . except names."  

    Why charge non-profit organizations twenty grand for the records? "These are not news organizations" which often "know what they're looking for," Hamner says. The Sierra Club and Beyond Toxics have made very broad requests. "We've estimated that . . . there were 2000 to 2500 potential documents." Because some might contain confidential information, a lawyer "would have to evaluate each document. . . . In coming up with an estimate, we figured out what staff time would be, what attorney time would be . . . and we came up with a cost of about $19,000."

    Hamner says that if the parties asking for the records didn't pay, the full cost would fall on the shoulders of taxpayers.

    Needless to say, the Sierra Club has put a different spin on the issue. The port's "appeal demonstrates the lengths to which the Port of Coos Bay will go to keep Oregonians in the dark about its plans to open our state to millions of tons of dirty, dangerous coal," Laura Stevens, the Sierra Club's organizing representative in Portland, said in a press release. "Perhaps the Port’s reluctance to reveal public information about coal exports development is because the plans will pollute Oregon’s air, land, and water."

    Critics see a deeper channel and a resurrected railroad as part of the port's preparation to become an energy export hub. Opponents also argue that during the permitting process the port and the state Department of State Lands have purposely — and illegally — separated channel deepening from the port development that channel deepening would make possible in the permitting process. That is part of the basis on which they have appealed the permit.

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    Posted Wed, Apr 11, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

    The exportation of carbon from the Pacific Northwest is a huge issue and it is not just Coos Bay and Bellingham and it is not just coal and LNG. Taken in total, the potential cumulative impacts of these action would be devastating across the face of Cascadia--from Alaska to California.

    Thanks for covering this issue.

    Bob Ferris
    Executive Director
    Cascadia Wildlands
    Eugene, OR


    Posted Wed, Apr 11, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    Well, if you assume that a coal port is eventually going to land somewhere on the west coast, it might as well be at a place that's already been trashed. Maybe better Coos Bay than Cherry Point.

    "Why has a public entity been so reluctant to allow public access to its records?"

    Major port districts are public in name only. Their main function is to facilitate private development with handouts of public tax money. They all, without exception, regard the public as an enemy to be out-maneuvered. Occasionally, public interest activists try to win election as port commissioners, and every now and then one of them may succeed. But I'm not aware of any port commission of consequence where a public interest coalition has ever been able to form a majority.

    Why port commissions for so long have been allowed to fly below the radar of effective public scrutiny is one of the great mysteries of contemporary life. People who fiercely criticize every penny spent by their county and city governments will give their profligate local port district a free ride. I really don't know why.


    Posted Thu, Apr 12, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

    This issue - the evils of coal exporting - deserves a thorough environmental analysis. But it does not warrant the theological dimension given it by proponents or opponents.

    Posted Fri, Apr 13, 7:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    This article is so riddled with inaccurate information it’s embarrassing. Perhaps some of these environmental groups and commenter woofer, who have obviously never been to a Coos Bay Port meeting or to Coos Bay period, should find out more about the place and what is really going on here.

    Perhaps there should be an investigation as to why these environmental groups have been so secretive and unaccountable to the citizens groups who have already been in the trenches fighting some of the Port of Coos Bay's destructive project proposals already for several years now? I suggest people find out more about what is really going on by visiting the recently revamped website of www.citizensagainstlng.com, along with www.mgx.com, www.bandonwca.org, www.oregonsadventurecoast.com and www.portofcoosbay.com

    Posted Sat, Apr 14, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    Regardless of other issues with Coos Bay Line, the seven railroad bridges on the lower Siuslaw river, in priority salmon habitat, have been degrading for decades and are in such bad repair that huge quantities of lead-based (85 to 98 % red lead)paint flakes and highly contaminated leachwater flow into the river from each bridge member during rain events. No agency responsible for water quality has investigated and initiated for mitigation plans. This could easily be a causative factor that has been unrecognized for being a salmon decline pressure.The new owners (the Port of Coos Bay, and public)now have a responsibility and opportunity to address this water quality nonpoint source pollution by repainting these bridges with appropriate coatings to mitigate the magnitude of the toxic contaminant impacts on salmon and species that support the salmon ecology in this highly productive fishing and fish-producing system.It is outrageous that this environmental problem has been continuing for many decades without state agencies identifying this pollution. With the line in new ownership, and stating a goal of environmental responsibility in its operation, both the port and public owners should work collaboratively to right this ecologic problem ASAP.The State Revolving Loan Fund might be a very appropriate source of initial funding for a problem quatification study to definitively show the regulatory need for action. The Loan fund could also be ued for obtaining initial funds to attract additional funding to help the Port solve this problem and help enable salmon population recovery in this watershed.


    Posted Wed, Apr 18, 11:50 a.m. Inappropriate

    It's not a secret any more; our reporters at the public media project, EarthFix -- Amelia Templeton and Bonnie Stewart -- have identified two of the companies through their public records research and additional reporting. Here's what they learned: http://earthfix.kcts9.org/energy/article/international-investors-plan-for-coal-terminal-in-/

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