PORTLAND, Ore. — Two Columbia River ports in Oregon are being considered as sites for shipping coal to Asia as demand increases in China, The Oregonian reported.
Legal documents filed by environmentalists indicate the Port of St. Helens is talking with a coal export developer. The Port of Morrow near Boardman recently signed a lease option with Australian coal giant Ambre Energy to shift Montana and Wyoming coal from trains to river barges, a move that could open more Northwest ports for coal export.
Currently, the only West Coast coal export terminal is in British Columbia, but proposals to add U.S. coal export facilities are stirring up controversy in Whatcom County and in Longview, as well as Oregon.
SSA Marine of Seattle is in the early stage of obtaining permits to build a coal and bulk cargo terminal at Cherry Point, south of the BP Cherry Point refinery.
An interest in coal by the Port of St. Helens was indicated in a complaint filed by Columbia Riverkeeper, which opposes coal export, asking a judge to require the port to release coal-related documents.
In a response, a lawyer for the port said it would violate a confidentiality agreement and "would result in the greatest harm to the public interest which can be imagined — a loss of jobs in our community."
The activity has caught the attention of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat with strong backing from environmental groups. In a statement to The Oregonian on Tuesday, Kitzhaber stopped short of taking a position on coal terminals, with his staff noting that no port or developer has contacted the governor's office about one.
But development of a terminal "should not happen in the dead of night," Kitzhaber said. "We must have an open, vigorous public debate before any projects move forward."
Columbia Riverkeeper helped stall development of an Ambre Energy and Arch Coal export terminal at a private port site in Longview earlier this year. A subsidiary, Millennium Bulk Terminals, temporarily withdrew its permit application after internal emails obtained during an appeal by environmental groups showed it planned to eventually export far more coal than it had disclosed publicly.
Environmental groups also are mobilizing to fight SSA Marine's Gateway Pacific terminal for Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the Powder River Basin, has announced it is prepared to export 24 million tons of coal per year at Cherry Point if the facility is built.
The project's permit applications envision a maximum capacity of 54 million tons per year, which would be about nine loaded trains per day.
Community activists in Longview and Bellingham — including Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike — say they worry about coal dust and increased train traffic. Environmental groups also note that both Washington and Oregon are phasing out their only coal-fired power plants to reduce pollution and carbon emissions, and argue that the emissions shouldn't simply be shifted to China, India and other Asian countries.
Some ports, including the ports of Portland and Tacoma, have said they're not interested in coal.
Patrick Trapp, Port of St. Helens executive director, said he couldn't confirm or deny the port's interest in coal given confidentiality agreements. But the port has received inquiries about many exports, he said, and "is nowhere near committing to any of these particular commodities." If a decision were made, there would be public notice and a vote by the port's commission, Trapp said.
"We're open for business," Trapp said. But, at this point, "we're just listening."