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Removal-fill permit denied by agency; Port Westward suggested as alternative site

For the first time, a government agency has rejected a permit sought for one of the coal export facilities proposed in the Pacific Northwest.

The Oregon Department of State Lands announced Monday that it rejected a removal-fill permit for the Coyote Island Terminal proposed at the Port of Morrow in Boardman. The terminal was proposed by Ambre Energy, the Australia-based company that hopes to haul Powder River coal from Wyoming by train to Boardman, then ship it on river barges through the Columbia River Gorge, to be loaded onto oceangoing ships at Port Westward, north of Clatskanie.

John Kitzhaber.The DSL decision was much anticipated after Gov. John Kitzhaber made strong comments against coal exports over the spring. The agency’s decision had been delayed several times.

“As many people know, this permit application has taken hundreds of staff hours to review,” said Mary Abrams, DSL director, in a prepared statement. “From reading more than 20,000 public comments to carefully analyzing technical documents and plans, this application has been scrutinized for months.

“We believe our decision is the right one, considering our regulatory parameters laid out in Oregon law, and the wealth of information we have received from the applicant and the public.”

The department’s 16-page report of its findings argued that not only did the Ambre proposal at Boardman fail to meet environmental standards and fulfill a “public need,” but it seemed to suggest that the company was too quick to dismiss Port Westward as an alternative site for the terminal.

According to the document, the Port of St. Helens was ruled out as a place where coal could be transloaded from trains to ships because its port site lacks access to a major railroad — but Port Westward is served by a rail spur from the Portland & Western line, and according to the port, it has sufficient capacity for a rail loop.

Patrick Trapp.“I am surprised, given the fact that Kinder Morgan was proposing to do just that,” port head Patrick Trapp said of DSL’s comments about alternatives. “There’s no secret Kinder Morgan was looking at moving between 5 to 15 tons of coal in the same location.”

Trapp said he is not sure what DSL’s intent was with the statement. He noted that Port Westward now has more companies leasing land there than it did in the past, so it is unclear whether that location could support a terminal.

Robert Keyser, who chairs the Port Commission, said last year that the port would not consider coal export proposals, in the wake of energy company Kinder Morgan’s abrupt decision to abandon plans to build a coal terminal at Port Westward.

Trapp said Ambre’s original proposal seems like the most viable option.

“I still believe that is the safest, best option for the system,” Trapp said of Ambre’s proposal to move coal by barge. “This was taking advantage of a maritime highway, it was taking advantage of covered product being moved through Port of Morrow through the rest of the river system and it was an opportunity to engage a lot more jobs and economic development.”

A spokeswoman for Ambre Energy noted there are logistical challenges with a rail-only option for coal transports to Port Westward, and said it had been eliminated as a feasible alternative to development of the facility at Boardman.

Mike Seely.Opponents of Ambre Energy’s proposal expressed satisfaction over the administrative decision.

“This is a heavy blow to the coal export proposals in the Northwest,” said Kimberly Larson, spokeswoman for the Power Past Coal Coalition based in Seattle.

Mike Seely of Clatskanie, a vocal opponent of coal and oil developments at Port Westward, was quoted by Power Past Coal as saying that a coal project would “devastate” his mint business.

“Today’s decision shows that Oregon communities and leaders agree: the threats of coal exports are far too risky for our economies and natural resources,” Seely said in his written statement.

Ambre Energy has 21 days after the denial to appeal the decision. If they do, a formal appeal process would be handled by an administrative law judge.

There is continuing pressure on U.S. and foreign power plant operators to reduce the burning of coal because of its high carbon emissions and air pollutants. Environmentalists concerned about climate change view the coal export proposals with alarm, as the terminals could assure a steady supply of coal for a new generation of coal plants in China, India or elsewhere in Asia.

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