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Coal export facility could get state subsidy

Two Port of St. Helens projects, including one critics say would allow for controversial coal exports to Asia, are among the 100 awaiting a state review for a share of $42 million.

The review is scheduled Wednesday and Thursday at a meeting at the Holiday Inn-Portland Airport. The panel's recommendations will go to the Oregon Transportation Commission, which will conduct a public hearing in July and adopt priorities in August.

Typically, however, the commission makes few changes in the list compiled by the panel from among air, port, transit and rail projects.

Highway and bridge projects are ineligible for a share of the $42 million available this two-year cycle from state lottery-backed bonds for Connect Oregon, which is for other transportation projects. The amount made available by the 2013 Legislature is up from $40 million in 2011-12, but less than the $100 million in each of the previous three cycles allocated to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The panel will consider 104 projects totaling $125 million, three times what is available.

Applicants must put up at least 20 percent of the amount requested from Connect Oregon.

In the projects proposed by the Port of St. Helens, industry is offering a lot more in their matches.

The port is seeking $2 million in state funds for each of two projects to allow its 70-year-old docks to accommodate the latest ocean-going ships, instead of barges. These are known as Panamax-class ships, which will be able to navigate a widened Panama Canal.

The Columbia River dredging project, which deepened the channel from 40 to 43 feet, was completed in 2010.

The Berth 2 reconstruction project would be matched with $3 million from Ambre Energy, the Australian company seeking permits to ship coal mined in Wyoming's Powder River basin to Asia. The money would be put up by a subsidiary, Pacific Transloading.

The Berth 1 extension project would be matched by $4.6 million from Global Partners, owner of Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, whose plant is next to the dock. The project would allow greater shipments of ethanol and crude oil.

Aside from the refinery, the port's other major tenant is Portland General Electric, which has two power plants in the adjacent industrial park and plans a third gas-fired plant.

Port officials say the Berth 1 project is the higher priority.

Ambre Energy would use Berth 2 to receive coal shipped by barge from the Port of Morrow at Boardman, where coal would arrive by train from Wyoming. It is awaiting approval of a state permit for the Boardman terminal, and other state and federal permits.

"Despite the governor's comments about not supporting coal through Oregon, the coal project is near the top of the potential projects list," said Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon, which has been critical of tax breaks and other subsidies for business.

However, Connect Oregon does allow for consideration of overall economic benefits and job creation in rating projects.

Four panels are split on their rankings.

The Berth 1 project was ranked highest by the panel for ODOT's Region 1, which includes the Portland metropolitan area. It was second on the lists of the Northwest Area Commission on Transportation, and the panel evaluating marine (port) projects, and sixth by the panel evaluating freight projects.

The Berth 2 project was ranked highest by the freight and marine panels, but only fourth by the ODOT regional panel and fifth by the area commission.

"The existing Berth 2 facility is structurally sound," the area commission concluded.

The Berth 2 project got 49 of 50 points, and Berth 1, 46 points, in evaluations by agency staffs.

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