In September 2012, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was ready to announce a major decision on a Columbia River coal port that would either fast-track an environmental study of the area or commit to a years-long review.
Businesses with hopes for the port's speedy approval wanted the review fast-tracked. Environmentalists and politicians, including Gov. John Kitzhaber, sought the longer process, which was already in motion at other Columbia River ports on the Washington state side.
It was to the shock of many, then, that the Corps chose the fast-track option.
Now, documents obtained by The Associated Press show the Corps prepared a detailed rollout strategy in preparation for the lengthy review option, called an Environmental Impact Statement, just days before the announcement. The rollout included all material necessary to issue an EIS: a memorandum detailing its decision, a communications strategy for the media and politicians, and a letter to the energy company behind the project, explaining its decision.
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But those review documents were criticized by Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., in notes included in the documents provided to the AP. Corps headquarters suggested the fast-track option, which would take a few months instead of years.
And just days later, the Corps announced it would indeed fast-track the study, conducting an environmental assessment, a far less rigorous analysis than an EIS.
The documents provided a rarely seen view of the Corps' decision-making process, especially one as publicly scrutinized as the proposed coal terminal in Boardman, Ore. The terminal would take coal brought by train in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana and transfer it to barges bound for the Pacific, ultimately destined for Asian markets.
The Corps and the former Corps official who was in charge of the project insist that the documents only show the Corps' thoroughness and preparation for either the fast-track or lengthy review options. The EIS documents, the Corps say, were simply composed in preparation for either possibility.
But environmentalists who obtained the documents and shared them with The AP are suspicious of this explanation, and question why the Corps would go as far as writing a letter to the energy company, Ambre Energy, explaining its decision, and why the changes came at the last minute.
"It's just not believable," said Brett VandenHuevel, executive director of environmental advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper. "The scientists made a determination of significant impact, and that was changed by Washington bureaucrats."
John Eisenhauer, the Corps official in charge of the Portland district in 2012, said there is nothing unusual about the documents prepared. Eisenhauer, who has since retired from the Corps and is an adviser at a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, denied any interference in his decision-making from headquarters.
"At no time did Corps headquarters or anyone direct me to make any particular decision," Eisenhauer said. "There are companies with a lot of money tied into these projects, and we should not be doing duplicative work. There's also taxpayer dollars here, and as a taxpayer, I don't want to see my money going to something sequentially when it could be happening simultaneously.
"It's my decision. No one from headquarters demanded anything."
The changes suggested by headquarters generally called for the Portland Corps division to focus more narrowly on the environmental impact of construction of the coal port itself. The original version took into account broader notions like the environmental impact of sending coal to be burned at power plants in Asia.
Adell Amos, a University of Oregon environmental law professor, said there was nothing untoward in the Corps document she reviewed, but said that when the Corps is sued on a project like the Morrow Pacific coal terminal, environmental attorneys will question the changes.
"You have to explain the basis for making that switch," Amos said.
VandenHuevel said the documents will play an important role in any future litigation opposing the coal port, and said the Corps' internal deliberations show that bureaucratic decisions trumped sound science.
"There's no way now that the Corps can argue for a shortcut," VandenHuevel said. "The Corps has shown here that they're not trustworthy."
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