Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Columbia Riverkeeper: Coal project's review was blocked by feds

Environmental group obtains documents from Army Corps of Engineers after legal battle

Photo Credit: AMBRE ENERGY - A map shows the planned coal transport activities proposed by Ambre Energy at the Port of Morrow. The proposed project was halted, but Columbia Riverkeeper says the proper environmental review was never completed.

Columbia Riverkeeper said Friday, Nov. 21, that interagency documents it received from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about a coal export project indicate a full environmental review of the project was warranted.

Columbia Riverkeeper is an environmental advocacy organization focused on issues that affect the Columbia River.

After reviewing documents pertaining to an application to build a dock at the Port of Morrow near Boardman, where Ambre Energy planned to transload coal, the environmental organization said an environmental impact statement should have been completed.

A point of contention between the Corps and Columbia Riverkeeper is a letter drafted from a staff member at the Corps' Portland District, which suggested an EIS was necessary.

The letter was drafted by a staff member for review, but never sent.

The letter to Coyote Island Terminal LLC reads, "I have determined that [Department of the Army] authorization of the proposed terminal would be a major Federal action likely to significantly affect the quality of the human environment, and therefore requires preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act."

The letter bears John Eisenhauer's name at the top. Eisenhauer was a colonel with the Corps at the time it was considering the application. He has since retired.

Eisenhauer said Sunday, after the Spotlight's initial report appeared online Friday, that the letter was not drafted by him and was never disseminated.

According to Eisenhauer, the letter was vetted by district officials in Portland and with other officials in the Corps' headquarters in Washington, D.C. and it was determined that "the process was not mature enough at that time to shift to an EIS.”

"The decision was made to continue with the environmental assessment process,” Eisenhauer said Monday.

He said the Corps' responsibility was only to consider the dock construction.

“The scope of analysis that was considered in that draft was far too comprehensive for the permit we were considering per 33CFR, part 325, appendix B,” Eisenhauer said.

Columbia Riverkeeper submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the Morrow Pacific project in 2012.

The Corps withheld key documents from the organization.

On Aug. 14, a federal judge ordered the Corps to release all information about the project to the environmental watchdog group.

In addition to Columbia Riverkeeper's suggestion for a full environmental review, Gov. John Kitzhaber advocated for a "programmatic and comprehensive environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act."

While many have suggested a full EIS be done, others are applauding the Corps.

“We commend the Corps of Engineers for acting in accordance with the law, and for ensuring a timely review process in the face of those who would like to politicize the issue," Kathryn Stenger, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, stated in a news release. "These terminals will expand trade and grow our export capacity, and that’s good for the entire region. Moreover, study after study has demonstrated that these terminals would be in compliance with the rigorous environmental standards of the Northwest.”

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, said the Corps' decision to complete an environmental assessment rather than a full EIS meant the full scope of impacts from the coal project were not researched.

“There's no public hearings, there's no comments, they just issue the decision and then write a document explaining why," VandenHeuvel said by phone Friday. "It's a big difference. It's not just an exercise in paperwork. The purpose of doing an EIS is to disclose to the public what the impacts are … and what's really going on."

Ambre Energy's application for the dock at the Port of Morrow was rejected by the Oregon Department of State Lands in August. The DSL decision was appealed by Ambre Energy, the Port of Morrow and the state of Wyoming, although Wyoming's appeal was rejected for lack of standing.

If the appeal of DSL's decision is successful and Ambre Energy is granted a permit, it could be challenged on the basis of an incomplete environmental review, VandenHeuvel said.

This story has been edited to reflect new information Add a comment