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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