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Weighing the pros and cons of coal

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.

Opinions are split after the news that two coal export companies are looking at north Columbia County to build facilities, with proponents touting the need to create jobs and build industry, while environmentalists warn of the possible negative effects of shipping the fossil fuel through the county.

As The Spotlight first reported last week, Kinder Morgan Terminals and Pacific Transloading are proposing separate plans to set up operations on Port of St. Helens property near Clatskanie. Both promise to bring jobs and give a much-needed economic shot in the arm to a region struggling with financial hardships.

However, according to Columbia Riverkeeper and other conservation groups coal moving through the county creates a health risk to both people and the environment. That's not to mention traffic congestion that could come as a result of increased rail traffic.

'Coal barges and coal dust present a toxic problem for Columbia River communities,' the group says on its website.

The Sierra Club created its 'Oregon Beyond Coal Campaign,' which looks to persuade the state to move towards a cleaner energy economy.

Kinder Morgan and Pacific Transloading are looking to move coal by rail and barge respectively. Kinder Morgan also wants to store coal at the Port Westward energy-focused industrial park.

Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl said her city is very interested in the proposals, but is taking a 'wait and see' approach before granting the plans a thumbs up or thumbs down.

'Our interest is very much peaked,' she said. 'We also know the Port is very choosey and they are going to protect this area as well as we are.'

The region is in need of a boost to its economy, but that's not to say economics should trump safety, she said.

Port of St. Helens Executive Director Patrick Trapp said it's the public agency's duty to consider all business prospects, even ones with years of baggage such as the coal industry. For the companies to begin operating out of Port Westward, they would first have to work through a number of bureaucratic hurdles in the state, including environmental assessments.

The Pacific Transloading operation, a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, would be part of the Morrow Pacific project, which looks to provide an export route for coal from the Powder River Basin. The coal would be shipped to the Asia-Pacific market to meet a growing demand. That project promises to create an initial 20 to 25 family-wage jobs as early as 2013 if it moves forward.

The Kinder Morgan bulk export terminal proposal could create at least 80 jobs, officials say.

If the project is approved, Ambre officials promise to make an annual contribution between $300,000 to $350,000 to county schools.

Currently, the closest coal-exporting terminal is in British Columbia.

Both proposals will be heard at a Jan. 25 Port of St. Helens public work session at 5 p.m. in the Community Education Center in Clatskanie, 555 SW Bryant St.