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REPORT: Coal project would cause unavoidable impacts to  fish and habitat

Ambre Energy funded biological assessment gives deeper look at coal export pitch
by: Courtesy illustration, This Ambre Energy illustration shows the proposed shipping route along the Columbia River for the Australian company’s proposed coal export operation. The Morrow Pacific Project would ship Powder River Basin coal by barge from Boardman, Ore., to Clatskanie where it would then be sent to the Asian market.

Ambre Energy's plans to export coal through the region would nearly double the amount of barge traffic on the Columbia River and create 'unavoidable impacts' to protected species, revelations contained in a recently released 'biological assessment' that is providing more fuel for environmentalists eager to end use of the combustible carbon.

As part of the mandated Army Corps of Engineers review process for Ambre Energy's 'Morrow Pacific Project' - one of six proposed coal export projects looking to operate from the Pacific Northwest - the energy company hired La Grande, Ore., civil engineering firm Anderson Perry and Associates to submit a biological assessment. Anderson Perry are also finishing a required 'environmental review,' which should be submitted this month for appraisal by the Army Corps, according to a spokeswoman for the project.

The 163-page biological assessment examines the presumed impacts of what Ambre attests will be an 'environmentally responsible' project. However, the Ambre-funded report also states the project will likely cause adverse affects to some fish species, including Steelhead and Chinook salmon, as well as impact certain designated critical habitats along the Columbia River.

'The proposed project will result in unavoidable impacts to protected species and critical habitat as project activities take place,' the report states. Those impacts are expected to mostly affect the behavior of fish, but likely will not 'result in mortality.'

The Environmental Protection Agency shared similar beliefs in April when it raised concerns to the Army Corps that barging coal along 'a federally designated National Scenic Area and one of our nation's great waterbodies' could 'significantly impact human health and the environment.'

Review process continues into summer

Now that the biological assessment is completed, the impending environmental review is the last required assessment to be considered by the Army Corps at this stage, a process that could last through the summer. Following that review, another 30- to 60-day public comment period will occur before the federal agency will decide whether or not to issue a necessary permit allowing the project to begin in-water construction at the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Ore.

But the Ambre-led environmental studies are not enough for some, including Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. He requested in April the Army Corps require what is called a 'programmatic environmental impact statement,' a detailed examination of the cumulative impacts of all regional coal export plans.

Ambre Energy said such a change to what it considers standard procedure, which could take years based on some estimates, is unnecessary considering the rigorous state permitting process already underway. Ambre hopes to begin exporting coal to the Asian market from industrial land near Clatskanie as early as 2013.

But Laura Stevens from the Sierra Club sees it differently as she believes a lengthy environmental impact review will give the clearest picture possible of how the region would be affected if millions of tons of coal begin moving through.

'It's very important to get all the facts out on the table,' Stevens said. 'Ambre wants to move fast.'

Public debate rages on

Just as conservationists are uniting under a Sierra Club-led coalition to move 'Beyond Coal,' Ambre Energy is actively pitching its own perspective to the public. Representatives from Gard Communications, the Portland marketing firm working for Ambre Energy, have given 39 public presentations this year to groups and agencies in the region. These talks are meant to create an ongoing dialogue with the public, according to Liz Fuller from Gard Communications.

The Australian energy company, founded in 2005, has been promoting its export plans - with a promise of creating 105 jobs and injecting million into the regional economy - since Jan. 25. That's when the Port of St. Helens commission gave a green light to Ambre Energy, as well as Kinder Morgan (proposing its own coal export terminal), by approving lease options with both companies so the firms could look to set up shop at Port Westward, a large energy park on Port-owned property.

At full operations, Ambre would ship as many as two daily deliveries of Power River Basin coal, each at a length of four enclosed barges. Each of those barges, traveling down the Columbia River from Boardman, Ore., would carry 3,500 tons on the nearly 38-hour journey, putting the anticipated daily weight of shipments at 56 million pounds. Based on current shipping levels, the project would increase barge traffic on the river by 94 percent.

This sharp increase in river use could hinder tribal gillnet fishing operations, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The commission raised concerns on behalf of regional tribes about the Morrow Pacific Project because, as commission Executive Director Babtist Paul Lumley wrote to the Army Corps on May 7, 'it will directly and negatively intrude on the tribes' exercise of their treaty fishing rights.'

Columbia River Basin tribes, which have strong historical ties to the river, signed treaties with the federal government in 1855 to relinquish millions of acres of land in order to reserve rights to continue fishing on the river at traditional locations, some of which are along the waterway's established shipping channel.

Asia's thirst for energy

The coal planned to be shipped by Ambre and other proposed projects would be destined for the in-demand Asian market, including China, whose thirst for U.S. fuel has not been satiated at current export levels.

In 2011, the United States exported 107 million tons of coal. At maximum capacity, Ambre officials state their Morrow Pacific Project would export 8.8 million tons a year.

The U.S. holds 28 percent of the world's coal reserves, the most of any country, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration.

There are currently no coal export terminals on the country's west coast. British Columbia has three.

GOP pollster finds many support coal exports

Critics of coal exports haven't yet convinced most Oregonians, at least according to a new poll by Republican pollster Bob Moore.

Moore Information found that 46 percent of Oregon registered voters favor exporting U.S.-mined coal through Oregon ports, while 31 percent oppose the idea and 22 percent say they don't know.

Moore also asked respondents if they had any concerns about exporting coal from Oregon ports, and, if so, to cite their top concern.

In response, 38 percent say they have no concerns; 21 percent say we need to keep U.S. coal for our own needs; 16 percent are concerned about increased strip mining to export the coal; 9 percent cite the global warming impact of other countries' use of coal; 8 percent cite coal dust blowing off rail cars; 2 percent cite railroad traffic through Oregon communities; and 6 percent have other concerns.

Moore Information surveyed 400 registered voters in Oregon on May 16 and 17. The poll has a margin of error of 5 percent, which means the results could be off that many percentage points in either direction.