Panel's work goes to state commission.

A state panel has given a boost to two Port of St. Helens projects, one of which would enable shipment of controversial coal exports to Asia.

The projects were among three dozen that await a share of $42 million available from state bonds for transportation projects other than highway and bridge work. The panel's recommendations, which members made at an all-day session Wednesday in Portland, go to the Oregon Transportation Commission for a public hearing July 17 and adoption in August.

One project would use $2 million to rebuild Berth 2 at the port at Columbia City for ocean-going ships. The amount would be matched by $3 million from Pacific Transloading, a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, the Australian company seeking permits to ship coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to Asia.

Coal would be shipped by train to Boardman, where it would be loaded onto barges down the Columbia River and then exported from Columbia City.

Ambre Energy already has an agreement with the Port of St. Helens for nonexclusive use of Berth 2. It is awaiting a state permit for a coal-loading terminal at the Port of Morrow In Boardman, plus other state and federal permits.

The other related project would use $2 million to expand Berth 1 at the Port of St. Helens, matched by $4.6 million from Global Partners, which owns the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery next to the site. The project could result in increased shipments of ethanol and crude oil, the latter shipped via train from the Bakken field of North Dakota.

The port's other major tenant is Portland General Electric, which operates two power plants and is building a gas-fired plant at the nearby industrial park.

The original docks date back 70 years, and are limited to handling barges. The projects would enable them to accommodate the new Panamax-class ships, so named because they can navigate a widened Panama Canal.

Both projects were ranked high by the panel, which had the task of sorting through 104 projects already reviewed by region and mode of transportation.

This round is the fifth for Connect Oregon, which supplies money from lottery-backed bonds for non-highway projects. Bicycle and pedestrian projects competed for the first time with air, port, rail and transit projects.

Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon, a group critical of tax breaks and other public subsidies for business, said the projects deserved greater discussion.

She said the Port of St. Helens projects, taken together, would heighten the potential for mishaps resulting from energy shipments.

But state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, whose district includes the port, said the proposed improvements would create good-paying jobs and significant economic activity. She said the port contains one of Oregon's largest blocks of industrial land and is served by rail.

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