Columbia Riverkeeper presses Port of St. Helens on coal loading discussions

An environmental watchdog group has filed a complaint in Columbia County Circuit Court to learn whether the Port of St. Helens has entered into discussions with a coal export terminal developer to bring a loading and transport facility to Port Westward.

But according to lawmakers privy to some of the talks, these preliminary plans fizzled earlier in the year before they could move forward.

Hood River-based Columbia Riverkeeper filed its complaint in Circuit Court June 13, requesting the port's records regarding conversations it supposedly had with coal export terminal developers. The legal filings came after Riverkeeper officials were twice rebuffed in their efforts to obtain meeting minutes and emails through Oregon's Open Meetings Act.

The organization wants the port to supply the names and details of coal companies that have expressed interest in the Port Westward industrial site in Clatskanie. The port's attorney, Robert Salisbury, wrote in his response to Riverkeeper that he would stop short of confirming that any discussions had taken place, adding that the port would not divulge the confidential nature of the discussions even if they had taken place.

But there have been tentative talks about a coal loading facility at Port Westward, the Spotlight has learned.

Dan Bravenec, a Wyoming businessman, met with the Port of St. Helens earlier in the year about developing such a facility on port-owned property, knowledgeable sources say. The plans called for shipping the coal by train to a facility, loading it onto barges and shipping it overseas.

Those plans to bring a loading facility to Port Westward, and thus tapping into a burgeoning Asian coal market led by China and India, didn't sit well with local lawmakers, who were unimpressed by the plans.

'I don't think the proposal was fully formed,' said state Sen. Betsy Johnson. 'I shared some comments with him about things he might want to consider if he was considering doing business in the state of Oregon. I never heard from him again.'

State Rep. Brad Witt, who was also involved with the conversations, said he thought a coal loading facility was untenable in the county due to the heavy train traffic it would add to the region.

Columbia Riverkeeper estimates that a coal loading facility at Port Westward could mean as many as 20 trains a day running through the county. Dan Serres, a conservation director for Riverkeeper, said coal dust plumes were another concern.

'From our perspective, that's just unworkable,' he said.

Multiple messages left on Bravenec's home voicemail in Wyoming were not returned.

Still, it's no secret that some of the biggest players in coal export want to move into the Pacific Northwest, with its growing ports with easy access to Asia.

Arch Coal, for one, bought a significant ownership stake in the privately owned Port of Longview earlier in the year and plans to ship coal out of a facility there.

And it's not alone, Serres said: Peabody Coal plans to open a loading facility in Bellingham, Wash., at its privately owned port, while Ambre Energy, an Australian firm, plans to operate a coal transportation facility at the publicly owned Port of Morrow, near Boardman.

The increased interest in coal export from the West Coast is a result of an explosion in the overseas market, coupled with a stark decrease domestically. The higher rate in exports in recent years has been driven by a booming interest in metallurgical coal in China, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

For its part, the Port of St. Helens has expressed a desire to add jobs regardless of the industry, while remaining reticent about the details.

'It doesn't matter what commodity it is: biomass, cars, ethanol anything,' said Patrick Trapp, executive director for the Port of St. Helens. 'That firm may want to protect their business interest.'

He refused to comment on the future potential of a coal loading facility at Port Westward and would not discuss past conversations.

But he added: 'The port is open for business.'

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