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PORT CONFIDENTIAL: Papers tell coals tale

Once-confidential documents show that coal has been courting the Port of St. Helens for years
by: Photo illustration, Thousands of pages of documents related to coal export plans in Columbia County were obtained by The Spotlight last week. The records detail more than two years of correspondence between Port of St. Helens officials and companies looking to export the commodity from land near Clatskanie.

Before the plans ever went public, the Port of St. Helens spent nearly two years in regular communication with major coal industry players who were pitching the public agency to export millions of tons of the controversial commodity through its land near Clatskanie.

Port officials say their initial secrecy - being bound by voluntarily drafted confidentiality agreements with prospective tenants Ambre Energy and Kinder Morgan - was needed to move early negotiations with the energy transporting firms forward. But critics of how the Port handled its dealings with 'king coal,' including environmental advocates Columbia Riverkeeper, have a different perspective - that the behind-closed-doors discussions kept the public in the dark for too long about plans officials knew would be divisive.

'It's all a matter of perspective,' Port Executive Director Patrick Trapp said about whether his agency did the correct thing in keeping the proposed projects out of the public eye until this January.

Trapp said the five members of the Port commission, an elected body that has oversight of the agency's staff, had not made up their minds regarding the coal projects until after hearing public testimony at a Jan. 25 hearing, the very first on the topic.

Following a closed executive session that occurred after the hearing, the Port commission voted to approve lease option agreements with Ambre Energy and Kinder Morgan, allowing both companies to begin a lengthy state permitting process. Ambre's Morrow Pacific Project is moving through those stages, while Kinder Morgan officials say their company plans to do the same later this year.

Based on The Spotlight's initial reading of thousands of pages of correspondence between Port staff, its commission and coal export companies obtained last week, months of meticulous work between coal representatives and Port staff went into crafting lease option agreements long before the general public was made aware of the proposals.

'The Port, along with private business, has to do a certain amount of due diligence and work before it's ready to take it public,' said Liz Fuller, spokeswoman for Gard Communications, the Portland marketing firm hired by Ambre Energy. 'Ambre has spent over a year planning this project and we still have a very thorough process to go through. To an extent, it would be confusing and misleading for the public to tell them about a project so far in its infancy.'

Trapp said it's the Port's belief approval of the lease options was merely the beginning of the public process, and added he's excited about the ongoing debate.

'There is great debate going on, there is great vigor going on,' he said.

What follows are selections, not edited to correct spelling or grammar, from the recently revealed correspondence, giving a look behind the scenes of how Port projects come to be.

* The Port had been in talks with Westbridge Terminals LLC, also under the name Coal-Link, and signed a letter of intent for the firm to pursue exporting through the Port of St. Helens-owned Port Westward property near Clatskanie in Sept. 2010. But those discussions faltered in early 2011. In a Feb. 10, 2011 email to Port staff Commission President Robert Keyser said there was not enough support from county officials and others to move that project forward. 'We all understand that major development such as this, with all its issues regarding increasing rail traffic through Columbia County, not to mention organized opposition from environmental community, will require complete and full support of our county and state officials. We do not have that support at this time.'

* In a March 2011 discussion regarding scheduling meetings with county officials to gauge their opinions on bringing coal exports to Columbia County, Port Commissioner Chris Iverson raised questions about a presumed lack of support. 'I received a call from Betsy [State Sen. Betsy Johnson] today and she asked for another meeting of the people who would get this going. According to her there is not the support for this project and she wants to make sure it's doable before we move forward... I don't want staff wasting their time if we are not going to have the powers that be support us. Except for the players, what has changed from the last time we brought this up and were told it was not getting strong support?' Iverson wrote March 28, 2011.

* Port officials discussed how to avoid public meeting law requirements by arranging multiple meetings between commissioners and Kinder Morgan representatives spread out over three days with two commissioners in each meeting. 'We have some strict rules here in Oregon regarding meetings with more than what would constitute a quorum (in our case 3 or more) due to past events. Even if they are scheduled at different times, we believe it can be conceived as a deliberation if more than 2 of them are scheduled for the same day. This is why we thought it would help to spread them out to 3 different days,' Port Deputy Executive Director Paula Miranda wrote on Jan. 4, 2012. But after discussion with a Port attorney, Miranda responded the following day that having separate meetings over the course of two days would be acceptable as long as there is no deliberation.

* Miranda responded upon learning the Sierra Club was hiring an organizing position for its Beyond Coal campaign. 'Looks like the Sierra Club is getting ready to fight coal,' she wrote on Feb. 28, 2011.

* On Aug. 26, 2011, Miranda wrote to Ambre Energy explaining how the Port planned to present the 'controversial' coal export plans to the public. 'We most likely will go through a longer notification process as we need to give the public additional time for public comment, since what we are dealing here with is a little controversial... We will try our best to get it on the agenda and maybe have one hour public comment prior to any approval. We may be able to get it approve on the same day or not, depending how much public comment process the commissioners may feel necessary.'

* Port staff and Kinder Morgan officials raised concerns about Portland General Electric not allowing the company to sublease PGE's already leased property at Port Westward. On Aug. 24, 2011 Kinder Morgan representative Kevin Jones wrote to Miranda, 'We would like to meet with you and PGE in the very near future... I'm concerned that their property or real estate group could be very cooperative today, when the project goes public they could change their minds on things due to public pressure. We really want to vet this before committing significant dollars on the balance of the project.' In April 2012, PGE decided to not allow Kinder Morgan to sublease its property, citing concerns over access and coal dust.

* Four days before sending out a press release alerting media the Port was going to consider signing lease option agreements with Kinder Morgan and Ambre Energy, Keyser, who is also a Clatskanie business owner, said it was OK if a communications representative working for Ambre Energy spoke with Clatskanie Chief Editor and Publisher Deborah Hazen. In the past Keyser has referred to Hazen as a supporter of the Port. 'I spoke to Robert Keyser and he is okay with your meeting with Debbie Hazen. He will talk to her and assure that nothing is said prior to next week, but he trust she will keep it quiet until then,' Miranda wrote on Jan. 12.

* Chris Iliffe, Kinder Morgan business development director, wrote to Port staff on Dec. 22, 2011 with an update to a drafted lease option agreement and a concern about Ambre Energy also pitching a coal export project. 'I believe we have found a working agreement!!,' he wrote. Trapp responded the following day, saying 'I too remain optimistic we can work through all of the issues... 2012 looks to be a very exciting year.'

BEHIND THE STORY

This report was based on documents given to The Spotlight by Columbia Riverkeeper - and also apparently The Oregonian, which published an article on the records June 11 - following the resolution of a yearlong lawsuit against the Port of St. Helens by the environmental group. Riverkeeper filed a public records request in March 2011 asking the Port for 'all documents related to proposals to export, store, or use coal.' Already in the midst of discussions with coal companies, the Port refused, citing its confidentiality agreements and the need to protect future investments. The lawsuit was settled this year and the records were released. For more on the lawsuit read, 'How much do you need to know?' in the Spotlight's Feb. 22, 2012 edition.