A federal judge ruled Thursday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must release more than 300 pages of documents pertaining to its review of the Morrow Pacific coal export project to Columbia Riverkeeper, a public interest group based in Hood River.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Papak ruled that all but two of the documents requested under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act do not qualify as exemptions under the law and must be shared with Columbia Riverkeeper. According to the judge’s 22-page ruling, the documents consist of the Army Corp’s draft communications plans, draft public communication materials, draft letters, draft versions of a never-finalized memorandum, and internal Corps briefing materials.

The Army Corps ruled in September 2012 that it would prepare an Environmental Assessment to review the potential adverse impacts of the Morrow Pacific project on the Columbia River ecosystem, rather than a more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement.

Columbia Riverkeeper sued, hoping the release of the documents might prod the Army Corps to reverse that decision and proceed with a more extensive environmental review. But it took nearly two years to get Thursday’s ruling.

“This is a victory for government transparency and communities threatened by coal export on the Columbia River,” stated Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper executive director, in a news release. “Now, the public will finally learn why the Army Corps chose a cursory environmental review of the Morrow Pacific coal export project at the same time it opted for in-depth environmental reviews of two similar coal export proposals in Washington.”

But the project appears to be getting closer to approval, with a pivotal permit decision expected next week by the Oregon Department of State Land.

Australian-based Ambre Energy hopes to haul coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming by open rail cars to the Port of Morrow in Eastern Oregon, then transfer it to barges for a 270-mile journey through the Columbia River Gorge. Then it would be offloaded onto ocean-going ships bound for Asia.

The Morrow Pacific Project appears to be the farthest along in the public approval process of the three remaining coal export terminals proposed in the Northwest. Three other projects were dropped.

To read the judge’s opinion:

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