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Real dialogue should frame coal discussion

This past week Columbia County residents received public relations literature from Australian-based Ambre Energy in an effort to sway local sentiment regarding a proposed project that would result in the construction of a coal-loading terminal at Port Westward near Clatskanie.

Many residents received the Ambre Energy mailer regarding the Morrow Pacific project, which calls for the transport of 3.5 million metric tons annually of coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana via rail to the Port of Morrow terminal in Boardman.

From there, the coal would be loaded onto barges, which Ambre Energy representatives contend will be fully enclosed, and shipped down the Columbia River to Port Westward, where it would be loaded via an enclosed process onto ocean-going vessels for transport to overseas markets, especially Asia.

The mailer, which is prefaced by a supportive letter signed by Clatskanie Mayor Diane

Pohl, is asking local residents to sign a prepared letter of support and mail it to the Army Corps of Engineers. The person signing the letter in effect is saying he or she believes the project 'is being designed to meet high environmental standards for air and water quality and protect fish and wildlife habitat' and that it 'creates jobs, supports schools and generates significant county property taxes and port revenues.'

The mailer is unquestionably Ambre Energy's political attempt to elevate public pressure on the Army Corps of Engineers to expeditiously approve the project.

We do not want the Army Corps of Engineers as an agency charged with the structural integrity of public infrastructure, whether dams, navigation channels or harbors, to be swayed in any capacity by corporate born political pressure. If the project passes muster with the corps and its standards, it passes muster. But let's give ACE engineers and decision-makers the opportunity to decide the project based on its merits and in absence of the white noise summoned by Ambre Energy's high-paid public relations firm.

Secondly, the claims in the letter are impossible, at this point, for any person in the general public to make with any degree of certainty. The Ambre Energy project is in its infancy in terms of winding its way through the regulatory process. Port of St. Helens officials in January approved a terminal service option with Ambre Energy for use of the site at Port Westward with the caveat the Port's approval would allow the targeted coal companies - which includes a second proposal from Kinder Morgan - to continue to pursue their projects through the appropriate regulatory channels. The ACE review of the Ambre Energy project is part of necessary regulation to ensure our public waterways and infrastructures are not compromised in the wake of considerable private use of those valued assets.

Unquestionably Ambre Energy executives are chomping at the bit to glide through the regulatory process as there are more than a handful of similar coal-transport proposals currently being proposed in the Pacific Northwest, and exactly how many the market will bear in terms of supply and demand is unknown; the first to set up shop and begin exports undoubtedly would have a leg up in this competitive marketplace.

But there are other values and standards - safety, first of all - that must be proven before any project, especially one tied to an industry with a failed track record in terms of health and human safety, warrants our stamp of approval or ACE's nod to continue forward.

Further, we are encouraged Gov. Kitzhaber and Sen. Ron Wyden have called for a full vetting of the potential ramifications from the coal projects and a deeper discussion regarding our domestic policy for energy exportation. To reiterate our message in The Spotlight's February editorial regarding coal, we should not allow this particular industry to set the development pace.

Additionally, we applaud Wyden's comments regarding a rekindled national dialogue about energy exportation policy, especially as the nation is poised to export more energy, including gasoline and oil, than it has in more than half-a-century.

That dialogue - real dialogue - is necessary and important. It should not be abandoned to cookie-cutter public relations efforts, such as a pre-drafted letter provided courtesy of a corporation that stands to make profits hand over fist by shipping coal through Columbia County.