Environmental advocates settle coal-related lawsuit with Port of St. Helens
Port of St. Helens releases disputed documents to Columbia Riverkeeper; group finds 'interesting' details
An environmental watchdog group early this month settled its lawsuit with the Port of St. Helens filed in dispute of the port's withholding of records related to two proposed coal export facilities near Clatskanie. But despite having received all requested records in the settlement, a representative with the nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper said it is too little, too late.
The Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the Port of St. Helens arguing the public agency's dealings with coal export companies was against both the spirit and letter of the state's Public Records Law.
In the April 4 settlement declaration, Port Executive Director Patrick Trapp wrote that his agency does not admit to breaking the law by refusing to release certain documents to Columbia Riverkeeper.
'The Port and Riverkeeper acknowledge that, while our interpretation of the law was different in this case, we were able to work together toward a settlement,' Trapp wrote. 'We agreed that a mutual settlement would avoid the unnecessary expenditures of legal fees and associated costs, to conserve judicial resources, and to further the best interests of the public.'
Columbia Riverkeeper filed a public records request on March 29, 2011 with the port asking for all documents related to proposals to export, store or use coal. The Port denied the request claiming that state law prohibits the agency from even acknowledging whether those records existed.
The port chose to sign confidentiality agreements with two coal export companies to 'encourage voluntary submission' of information in business dealings. Releasing information about early-stage projects could potentially lead to businesses refusing to set up shop in Columbia County, Port attorney Robert Salisbury argued in court documents.
Riverkeeper Executive Director Brett VandenHeuvel said out of 22 similar requests made to public ports in the region, the Port of St. Helens was the only one to flatly refuse to share any documents (See Feb. 22 Spotlight edition, 'How much do you need to know?').
'We believe the Port's secret agreement with the coal companies was illegal,' VandenHeuvel alleged.
Now Columbia Riverkeeper has in its possession a box of documents from the Port of St. Helens, which its staff is still working through. VandenHeuvel said they are finding some 'interesting stuff' that would have been a lot more interesting had the port released the documents before it signed lease options in January with two coal export companies, Kinder Morgan and Ambre Energy.
A rising Asian market demand for Power River Basin coal has led to numerous proposals to ship the material through the region by barge and rail. Kinder Morgan and Ambre Energy want to export the fossil fuel from Port of St. Helens-owned land near Clatskanie, but their proposals must first work through numerous state bureaucratic processes.