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Coal export plan takes an unlikely hit

Coal terminals claim constitutional protections. Credit: Courtesy of Paul K. Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

Coal exports from the Columbia River Port of St. Helens took a major hit this week from an unlikely source — Portland General Electric Co., operator of Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant.

The big power company said that it would not sublease for a coal terminal an 852-acre tract that it leases from the Port of St. Helens, citing the problem of coal dust from an export operation. PGE has the right to sublease its land, which it also uses for two natural-gas-powered generators, and the Port had been counting on the PGE tract to put together a coal-export facility for the Kinder Morgan coal giant, which would ship about 15 millions tons a year.

PGE should know something about coal dust; since 1975 it has operated a 550-megawatt coal-fired plan at Boardman, along the Columbia River in north-central Oregon. The plant is served by rail. PGE will close Boardman in 2020; it has long been under fire from environmental organizations. PGE for many years also operated Oregon’s only nuclear-power plant, just downstream from St. Helens, so it has been a serious factor in the area’s economics for many years. The Trojan nuclear plant was shut down in 1993.

At St. Helens, Kinder Morgan wants to accept Powder River Basin Coal delivered by rail for trans-shipment to Asia. The proposal would involve upgrading a small local rail line, and added rail traffic was cited by PGE as another reason for not leasing its land to Kinder Morgan.

The PGE rejection is important but may not be a fatal blow for the Port’s coal interests. Port Commissioner Colleen DeShazer told the South County Spotlight, the weekly newspaper that broke the story Tuesday, that the development was a setback and could be a “back-to-the-drawing board situation,” but the port owns other vacant land, and is negotiating with a second export proposal.

Ambre Energy, the Austrialia-based energy giant, is also negotiating with the Port for an export terminal, and the PGE announcement did not mention Ambre; both proposals were came to light in late January. The issues of coal dust, however, would appear to be similar for the Ambre proposal, about 9 million tons a year brought to the Port by rail and barge. Ambre would use rail to bring the coal to the Port of Morrow, upstream on the Columbia River, where it would transfer to barges en route to St. Helens. The barges, utilizing locks at Bonneville and John Day dams, would increase barge traffic on the river by about 94 percent, according to a biological assessment produced by Ambre Energy.

Objections to coal exports have been building in Oregon, led recently in a strong letter from Gov. John Kitzhaber to federal agencies involved in siting coal-export terminals. Without explicitly rejecting coal exports, Kitzhaber urged the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look at the entire field of coal use as part of their review of regional export proposals.

“If the United States is going to embark on the large scale export of coal to Asia it is imperative that we ask — and answer — the question of how this decision fits into the larger strategy of moving to a lower carbon future. In the lack of a clear policy on this point we will simply be deciding by not deciding,” Kitzhaber wrote. "We must consider and balance of all the associated economic, environmental and health problems related to such a course of action for the Pacific Northwest and for our country.” The governor has close ties to major environmental organizations, and on several occasions has expressed concern about coal terminals in Oregon. In addition to St. Helens, Coos Bay is looking at coal.

Kitzhaber is requesting a “programmatic environmental impact statement,” which would go well beyond a series of investigations into water and air quality, rail congestion, and so forth. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also called for a more comprehensive review involving all of the several West Coast terminal proposals.

Two Columbia River Gorge communities have also expressed opposition to coal exports, citing both river and rail transportation and the issue of coal dust. City councils in Hood River and Mosier, upstream from Portland, recently joined Kitzhaber in calling for the broader environmental review. In any of the export plans, most of the coal would be shipped through the scenic Columbia River Gorge, with BNSF lines on the north bank and Union Pacific on the south bank; both Hood River and Mosier are in the Gorge National Scenic Area.

St. Helens is only one of several coal-export terminals that international energy companies hope to open in the Pacific Northwest to take advantage of Asia’s demand for coal. Other terminals are in some stage of proposal or study at Longview on the Columbia River; Bellingham and Grays Harbor on Puget Sound; and Coos Bay.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, is a longtime Northwest journalist who covered Oregon politics for two decades. He lives in Bellingham and can be reached at

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