25 July 2012 by Published in: Opinion No comments yet

The Economy, Coal and “Fugitive Emissions”

Editorial Comments

by Deborah Steele Hazen

Columbia County’s unemployment rate was 9.3 percent in June, unchanged from the previous month. A year ago, it was 10.3 percent, but it’s hard to say if that one percent actually got jobs, moved away or just quit looking.

Our county’s unemployment rate is higher than the statewide rate (8.5 percent) and the national rate (8.2 percent), and has consistently been so since the current recession began.

On July 18, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley sent a letter calling for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management to conduct a “comprehensive, expedited programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)” for the proposed coal export facilities in Oregon and Washington.

Merkley followed in the footsteps of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, who called for a “programmatic EIS” on April 25.

On the other hand, a June 1st letter from Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), in response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers call for comments about the dock facility improvements needed at the Port of Morrow in Boardman in eastern Oregon for the Morrow Pacific Project, put some prospective on Kitzhaber and Merkley’s demands for “programmatic” reviews.

“Increasing the scope of the review process would be inappropriate for this project and may set a precedent of similar requirements for other export projects. The permit requested by the Morrow Pacific project is for a dock permit, similar to what could be requested for other commodities including grain, aggregate, ethanol and more.

“In evaluating permits, state and federal agencies play the critical role of gatekeeper. Requests for expanding the scope of the review process amount to a significant public policy shift. In addition, a

programmatic EIS could include review of projects that have not even submitted a permit application.  It would be irresponsible of these agencies to spend federal and state dollars to review projects that are no further than the infancy stage.”

We would underscore the fact that the trains for the Morrow Pacific Project would stop in Boardman. The coal would be loaded onto fully enclosed barges that would be towed downriver to Port Westward, the former Beaver Army ammunition depot near Clatskanie which has been owned by the Port of St. Helens since the mid-1960s. There the coal would be transloaded – in a fully-enclosed system – to the holds of Panamax ships.

We would also emphasize that the Kinder-Morgan proposal – the project that would see coal shipped by train to Port Westward – has not even begun the permitting process. That company is still deciding whether to even try to pursue a coal export terminal in Oregon.

There seems to be a considerable amount of confusion in the minds of some members of the public linking the Morrow Pacific Project (Ambre Energy) with the Kinder-Morgan project. They are two entirely separate projects, independent of each other.

The one that is in the permitting process is the one in which coal would not be brought into Columbia County on trains, but would come down the river in enclosed barges. It is the one in which coal would never see the light of day between Boardman and Asia.

On Monday of this week the Morrow Pacific Project signed a letter of intent with Gunderson and Vigor Industrial, two Portland companies, for the construction of 20 enclosed barges, a combined purchase price of over $75 million, temporarily employing several hundred construction workers.

Those contracts, that money infused into the economy, those jobs, are, of course, dependent on the permits and on financing.

“The requests for an expanded scope, which would certainly delay or kill projects, are also at odds with the national and regional goals to increase exports,” the letter from the PNWA continued.

“In March 2010 as part of the administration’s National Export Initiative, President Obama announced an ambitious goal of doubling exports within five years. At a recent port meeting Governor Kitzhaber highlighted the importance of the export market to the Oregon economy and pledged to continue ‘scouring the state’ for new export business.”

Yeah, right.

About Those Barges on the River

The PNWA is a regional trade association that advocates for federal policy and funding for navigation infrastructure projects in the Northwest. PNWA represents multiple industries in the public and private sectors in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California.  Members include public ports, navigation, transportation, international trade, tourism, agriculture, forest products, energy and local government interests.

Since its founding in 1934, PNWA has been a leader in the development of economic infrastructure for navigation, electric power and irrigated agriculture on the Columbia and Snake river systems.  In 1971, PNWA expanded, adding Puget Sound and coastal port members to provide a comprehensive regional perspective. It works with the U.S. Congress, federal agencies and regional decision leaders on transportation, trade, tourism, energy and environmental policy to enhance economic vitality in the Pacific Northwest.

So the PNWA is not a narrowly-focused organization, and it knows what it’s talking about.

We don’t want to make this column too long to read with too many details, but in its letter to the Corps of Engineers the PNWA addressed the concerns from the “antis” that the barges for the Morrow Pacific Project might over-tax the river system, and revealed those concerns to be baseless.

“Even with current trade levels, there is capacity in the river system. From 1994 to 1995, 8,037 vessels passed through the Bonneville Lock. By contrast, last year just 5,152 vessels passed through the same lock, a decrease of 36 percent…. Thanks to regular lock maintenance and repairs, there is significant capacity for vessel traffic to increase…“

By the way, the “antis” have approximately quadrupled the estimates of the trips through the locks by the proposed coal barges, ignoring the fact that the barges will be towed in groups of four.

“In 2010, stakeholders celebrated the completion of the Columbia River Channel Improvement Project,” the PNWA letter continued. “The federal government, ports on the Lower Columbia River, and the states of Oregon and Washington invested over $183 million to deepen the Columbia River navigation channel to 43 feet.  The purpose of this project was to make the river system more marketable and to bring new business to our region. Channel deepening, as well as significant recent lock repairs, solidify the Columbia Snake River System’s position as one of the nation’s leading international trade gateways.”

Why, indeed, did we spend all that time and money deepening the Lower Columbia River shipping channel if it couldn’t accept greater capacity, or our elected leaders and a minority of activists were going to veto proposals for using the river.

By the way, a survey of 400 statewide registered voters conducted by Moore Research of Portland and announced in early June found that 46 percent of those asked favored exporting U.S. coal from ports in Oregon while 31 percent are opposed to it. Another 22 percent had no opinion.

And finally, in regard to shipping concerns, the Columbia River Pilots, the men and women responsible for guiding ships on the river, have stated that in their opinion, the proposed Morrow Pacific barges pose no additional safety concerns for vessels in the Columbia River system.

Something in the Air 

at the DEQ

In a move that was, in our opinion, purely and transparently political, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) reversed itself last week in regard to the need for an air contaminant discharge permit (ACDP) for the Morrow Pacific Project’s Boardman facility.

In a letter so obscure in its verbosity as to be almost indecipherable, the DEQ stated that while it decided in February that Morrow Pacific’s plans for a building with vents and scrubbers to contain any “fugitive emissions from coal storage piles” at Boardman would do just that, and the project therefore did not need an ACDP, now it has decided that somehow there still might be “fugitive emissions,” and therefore it is requiring an ACDP.

The Morrow Pacific Project had already applied for an ACDP and had paid the permitting fees, which the DEQ returned with the announcement in February that there was no need for the permit.

After getting a big whiff of the political emissions, the DEQ changed its mind five months later.

And, just to add to the complexity, cost and delays, the DEQ is requiring not a “simple” ACDP which would be all that would normally be required even under the DEQ’s guesstimations of supposed “fugitive emissions.”

No, because of the “considerable public interest,” the DEQ is requiring the longer, more complex process of a “standard” ACDP.

Something stinks alright!

No Reply from 

Governor Kitzhaber

Nevertheless, Morrow Pacific officials, who have emphasized that they are determined to meet every regulatory requirement, say they will resubmit the application for the ACDP immediately.

“Due to our control methods including the storage buildings, vents and scrubbers, we are confident we will contain fugitive dust well below permit levels. We’ve designed this project to virtually eliminate dust,” says Clark Moseley, the present and chief executive officer of Morrow Pacific.

Meanwhile, Port of St. Helens commission president Robert Keyser of Clatskanie has not received a response to the letter he sent to Governor Kitzhaber the first week in May. It was a very polite and informative letter which we printed in full in our May 10th issue. It explained the economic situation in Columbia County, and the efforts of the Port and other economic development leaders to bring badly-needed jobs to our very suitable industrial sites.

“We understand the widespread interest and sensitivities of the two proposed coal projects,” Keyser wrote to the governor a few days after Kitzhaber’s call for the “programmatic review of any coal projects in the Pacific Northwest.”

However, Keyser continued “the Port of St. Helens leadership believes these proposals for the Port Westward Industrial Park near Clatskanie should be given an opportunity to show that they can more than satisfy our state’s high environmental standards. In fact, both companies are proposing new technologies and procedures that far exceed current environmental and safety standards. While we understand and respect your decision to ask the federal government for a programmatic review of coal export, we are concerned that the review process and accompanying energy policy discussion may lead to significant delays, if not the complete cancellation of these proposals, and the loss of potentially hundreds of direct and indirect jobs for Oregonians.

“On behalf of the Port of St. Helens, I am pleased to extend an invitation to you and your economic development team to visit the Port Westward Industrial Park and have a conversation with us regarding the future of this site. Your visit would lift the spirits of our citizens who have seen only disappointment in recent years. Our intent is not to attempt to change your position with regard to coal, but given that position, see how best to move forward. Collaboratively, I am confident we can work as a team to help realize the potential of this incredible, yet grossly under-used industrial site. We look forward to discussing ways that the Port, the State and our local communities can work together to put Oregonians back to work.”

It’s been almost three months since that letter was sent, and the governor hasn’t bothered to reply.

So, the long and frustrating attempt to bring jobs and industrial valuation to Port Westward and Columbia County continues.

Our thanks to the Port of St. Helens staff and commission for their hard work, courage and perseverance.

 

 

 

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