Environmentalists in Whatcom County and Seattle declared a victory in their regional fight against coal terminals, after the state of Oregon on Monday, Aug. 18, rejected a permit for construction of the Coyote Island Terminal at the Port of Morrow on the Columbia River.
A nonprofit that supports the export industry said the permit ruling was a setback to economic recovery.
Oregon's decision to reject a request by Ambre Energy to build a dock for loading barges with coal was the first time a government agency had ruled on a Pacific Northwest coal terminal permit, environmental groups said. If Oregon's decision stands, the number of coal terminals proposed for the Pacific Northwest will have gone from six a few years to just two, both in Washington - Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, and Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview.
"We know this fight isn't over," said Kate Blystone, program director at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities in Bellingham. "Having one less proposal, it doesn't take the pressure off - it puts some pressure on. We're hopeful that our community will be able to stand up and continue to fight (the Gateway Pacific Terminal) proposal because it's not good for the future. It's not forward thinking."
The nonprofit Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports said the decision "hurts all trade-related industries and workers in our region," according to a written statement from Alliance spokeswoman Kathryn Stenger. The state's ports are "one of the few bright spots in Oregon's economy," she said.
Although Ambre Energy needs the rejected permit to build a dock, the Alliance suggested in its statement that Coyote Island and the other two coal terminal proposals still would be built.
"All three proposed coal export terminals in the region have been designed to meet or surpass the region's high standards for environmental stewardship. The Alliance expects each facility will secure necessary permits and environmental approvals," the statement says.
Craig Cole, spokesman for Gateway Pacific Terminal proponent SSA Marine, declined to comment, saying the company does not comment on other terminal projects.
Oregon's laws are different than those in Washington, but Monday's decision bodes well for future decisions on the Gateway Pacific Terminal, said Kimberly Larson, director of communications at Climate Solutions.
The Columbia River terminal, 50 miles southwest of the Tri-Cities, would have had the capacity to export 8 million tons of coal a year, compared to up to 48 million tons at Gateway Pacific Terminal. Oregon's decision was based, in part, on complaints from the public that the terminal would increase barge and train traffic, and the chance of coal spills.
"While they're using different state law, the impacts are greater. I think that's significant," Larson said.
Even though one fewer coal terminal proposal in the region might be said to increase the pressure to build at Cherry Point, Larson said coal's prospects as a viable export commodity are dim.
"Last year we saw a lot of Wall Street research ... saying coal exports and coal sales abroad are not a good deal and not a good financial investment," Larson said. "Since that time a year ago, we've seen prices go down even more."
China has signaled that it wants to curtail coal use in its next five-year plan, mainly to reduce air pollution in its major cities. But forecasts of the coal export market vary. Some say China will transition slowly away from coal and will actually increase coal use for another decade.
The dock's adverse impact on area tribes' commercial and subsistence fishing also was a major factor in Oregon's decision.
"The proposed fill would obstruct the small but important long-standing fishery in the project area," the order from Oregon's Department of State Lands says. "Therefore, sound policies of conservation do not support issuance of the permit."
The waters off Cherry Point, where Gateway Pacific Terminal would be built, are traditional fishing areas for Lummi Nation, which issued a statement on the Oregon decision.
"The Lummi Nation supports the State of Oregon and Governor (John) Kitzhaber for the decision to deny the Coyote Island Terminal permit. By doing so they have recognized the damage that the proposed port would bring to our region," Lummi Tribal Chairman Tim Ballew said in the statement.
"The state's action makes a strong policy statement by recognizing tribal sovereignty and the treaty rights of the Columbia River tribes. Such decisions are few and far between. This is important not just for the Yakama and Umatilla (tribes), but all Indian fishing tribes. Together we can, and will, protect our way of life," Ballew said.
Gateway Pacific Terminal must get approval from the state Department of Natural Resources, an agency similar to Oregon's Department of State Lands. DNR does not have permitting authority but would issue an aquatic lands lease to Gateway Pacific Terminal if four mandates are met:
-- Encouraging direct public use and access;
-- Fostering water-dependent uses;
-- Ensuring environmental protection;
-- Utilizing renewable resources.