Battle Continues Over Port of Morrow Coal Exportation

May 1, 2012 Updated: May 3, 2012

Oregon’s Port of Morrow is the site of a controversial struggle between environmentalists, the coal industry, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over approval of facilities used to export coal to Asia.

As Ambre Energy North America awaits Army Corps of Engineers approval to construct a transloading dock that would handle the shipments, the EPA, in a letter to the Corps of Engineers, called for a review of the impact of coal exportation through Northwest ports. Such ports include the Port of Morrow, along the Columbia River near Boardman, Ore. The agency cited possible impacts on human health and the environment.

“Transporting and transloading up to 8.8 million tons of coal with 11 trains, 12 loaded barge tows, and 3 Panamax ships per week, has the potential to significantly impact human health and the environment,” said Kate Kelly, the EPA’s director of the Office of Ecosystems, Tribal, and Public Affairs, in a letter to the Corps of Engineers earlier last month.

The coal, which originates from mines in Montana and Wyoming, would travel via rail to transloading docks like the Port of Morrow, where it would then be transferred to other barges headed to an Ambre facility in Port Westward Industrial Park, at the Port of St. Helens. From there, the coal would be transferred to ships headed for China, India, and other Asian countries.

The EPA’s concerns over the coal transfer include possible contamination through coal dust and diesel emissions from trains and barges traveling through the Columbia River Gorge.

However, according to Port of Morrow officials, the coal would be offloaded from covered rail cars to a warehouse, then through enclosed conveyors to barges. The barges would also be covered during their trip to St. Helens, where an enclosed system would then transfer the material to ocean vessels.

There would be no open-air coal piles or visible movement of coal; all of it will reportedly be covered. The area itself is strategic in its location of coal transfer from Union Pacific main lines (rail) to the Port of Morrow. The Port already approved an option to lease property for the transloading of bulk commodity (coal).

“Utilizing the river system incorporates the safest, and most economical and environmental mode of transportation of product,” Gary Neal, general manager of the Port of Morrow. “Why wouldn’t this be the preferred way to move this commodity? The capital investment in our area and the jobs that this creates is good for the economy of our region and our state.”

The agency also expressed concerns over toxic particles—including mercury—produced from coal burning in Asia, which could travel on trade winds from Asia to the West Coast, affecting the ozone and the atmosphere.

Environmentalist groups, such as Earthjustice, are heavily opposed to any coal exportation through the West Coast. According to an press release, even Oregon and Washington’s remaining coal plants have shut down, and to send those emissions overseas would be counterproductive.

Additionally, Earthjustice argues that the pollution produced in Asia will not only end up in our air, but could end up in our fish through contaminated ocean water.

Currently, there are no West Coast coal exportation facilities. But, with other facilities planned at Bellingham, Longview, the ports of Grays Harbor and Coos Bay, and other sites, outgoing coal exports at peak are expected to reach 150 million tons a year. As demand for coal in the United States decreases, demand for coal in Asian countries increases, which is seen as a great potential market for energy producers.

“The Morrow Pacific project will create 105 much-needed jobs and provide millions of dollars annually to both Columbia and Morrow counties as early as mid-2013,” said Brian Gard of Gard Communications, spokesperson for Ambre Energy.

The EPA statement initially came as positive news for environmental groups such as Earthjustice, and local Native American tribes near the Columbia River. However, the EPA has yet to recommend to the Army Corps of Engineers a full analysis of all six planned projects in the area.

Ultimately, the Army Corps of Engineers could choose to reject any recommendation forwarded by the EPA. Currently, the Corps is still gathering public opinion on the matter and attempting to fully evaluate the permit proposals.