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Coal companies see future in Columbia County

Two coal exporting firms in early talks with Port of St. Helens to set up near Clatskanie
by: Courtesy photo EXPORTS — A small coal export terminal operates in Seward, Alaska. This terminal was under scrutiny in 2009 because of the coal dust blowing from the facility.

Two separate companies are in early talks with the Port of St. Helens to bring coal-exporting operations to Port-owned property near Clatskanie, a move likely to catch the eye of anti-coal advocates across the state who proclaim the commodity to be dirty and potentially unsafe.

The Port of St. Helens recently agreed, after initial talks with the firms, to hear two proposals asking to set up operations at the Port Westward Industrial Park near the north Columbia County town. Kinder Morgan Terminals LLC wants to use the railway to ship coal and build a storage facility at the industrial property, while Pacific Transloading LLC wants to ship and receive, but not store, the fossil fuel.

Specific details about the proposed operations will be presented at a 5 p.m. Jan. 25 public work session at the Clatskanie Community Education Center, 555 S.W. Bryant St.

Regional environmental advocacy groups like the Columbia Riverkeeper are paying close attention to any coal-related industries looking to open in Oregon. Riverkeeper Executive Director Brett VandenHeuvel was not aware of the interest in exporting and storing coal at Port Westward when contacted Monday by The Spotlight. He believes coal exporting is the biggest threat facing the lower Columbia River, having the potential to dramatically change the face of the river, including the communities along the shipping route. Coal is dirty, he said, harmful to public health and could cut some cities in two with drastically increased rail traffic.

Port of St. Helens Executive Director Patrick Trapp said he understands concerns related to coal, but these are merely early discussions. A number of bureaucratic hurdles - including public comments and environmental assessments - would have to be undertaken before any coal-related facilities can open.

Trapp said the Port considers all business prospects and the public agency would be remiss if it didn't explore opportunities to grow industry and help create jobs.

'We appreciate and respect individuals' concerns,' Trapp said about any coal-related alarm.

The Columbia Riverkeeper is still pursuing litigation related to a public records request filed nearly a year ago asking for documentation about the Port of St. Helens' talks with an unnamed coal export terminal developer (See June 22, 2011 Spotlight edition, 'Coal loading facility burns out'). The Port asserts that releasing those records would break a confidentiality agreement and potentially hurt business dealings.

The closest coal-exporting terminal is in British Columbia. There are none on the West Coast of the United States.

Oregon appears to have little interest in coal operations. The state's only coal-fired power plant in Boardman is set to close by 2020.

In a letter sent to the Columbia Riverkeeper group last March, the Port of Portland said it would not consider a coal terminal. 'The Port needs to be reflective of the community and its values. Coal doesn't seem to fit within those values,' Port officials wrote at the time. In 2008, the Port of Vancouver operations manager called coal 'the most risky bulk mineral market' because of the sometimes-fickle Asian markets.

Reports from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show a steady drop in domestic coal consumption in recent years. However, there continues to be a rising demand in Asia, particularly China, the largest coal consumer in the world.

In 2010, the U.S. mined nearly 1,085 million short tons of the combustible rock across the 26 states that mine coal. Wyoming mines the most, with eight of the top 10 producing coal mines located in that state.

'There has been a strong push in the direction to get out of the coal business, so these export proposals fly in the face of the desire to stop dealing with coal,' VandenHeuvel said.

Trapp said state regulatory processes are detailed and strong and the process is set up to weed out threats to health and environment.

'We respect their position, yet we stand firm that Oregon has a great reputation ensuring an extremely high standard for environmental compliance,' Trapp said.