Group eyes coal trains

Written by Katy Nesbitt, The Observer December 05, 2012 02:00 pm

La Grande nonprofit takes Oregon DEQ to task during meeting over shipping proposal

BOARDMAN — Blocking coal trains is becoming a hot topic for Northwest activists. 

A group of La Grande residents attended a DEQ meeting Tuesday in Boardman to express their concerns about a proposal to ship coal through the Northwest. 

Ambre Energy wants to bring 8.8 million tons of coal by train to the Port of Morrow from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. It would then be barged to Port Westward in Clatskanie and loaded on ships bound for Asia, primarily China, South Korea and India, said Bob Ferris of Eugene’s Cascadia Wildlands.

If approved, the coal train traffic would quadruple from the 2.1 million tons of coal per year brought in for the PGE coal-fired power plant in Boardman.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality held the first of three information meetings regarding the Coyote Terminal at the Port of Morrow to discuss its permitting process. 

“When we get a proposed project that has high potential environmental impact we hold information meetings. We are considering applications for air quality, wastewater and                   the coal storage facility permits,” said Marcia Danab, public affairs officer for the DEQ.

Danab said because this is the first project that actually has permit applications, Ambre also needs permits from the Department of State Lands and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Unfortunately, the department’s answers to the public’s concerns during the meeting were not adequately addressed, said Bridget Callahan of Oregon Rural Action, a La Grande nonprofit that got the word out to its membership to attend the meeting.

“I talked to several members with ORA about the coal exports and there was a mix of frustration; not just at the proposal itself but the process,” Callahan said. “Ultimately, the DEQ dodged many of the questions regarding health and safety as it did not pertain to the very narrow, specific jurisdiction of the permits Ambre’ is seeking.”

Callahan said DEQ representatives would not comment on or monitor diesel particulate emissions or coal dust from the coal trains en route to Boardman from Montana, or even the rail section in Oregon. They could only comment and monitor diesel particulate emissions or coal dust from coal trains that were essentially “parked” outside within the specific facility of the port for health and safety.

“This is not a jobs versus environment debate. The fact is, we’re extremely concerned about the impacts on rural economies,” said La Grande ORA member Charles Gillis. “Ninety percent of Oregon’s grain is shipped abroad, mostly to Pacific Rim countries, leaving Eastern Oregon dependent upon the very rail and barge systems these coal companies are planning on congesting. The impact on our agricultural economy displaced by coal is a huge concern.”

Callahan said the DEQ also could not comment on the effects of burning coal, the impacts to human health with train congestion and emergency response delays, barge emissions or essentially anything from mine to rail to port or anything after the barge leaves the port.

“I’m failing to see any agency that is responsible for the entire project from mine to port, and the DEQ hearing (Tuesday) made this very clear,” said Bill Whitaker, a La Grande ORA board member. “We need a comprehensive environmental impact statement that will seriously look at the cumulative health effects on our children and generations to come. This cannot be a ‘build first, ask questions later’ project with such enormous consequences on the health and safety of our communities.” 

Callahan said an example of the lack of information provided at Tuesday night’s meeting came when someone asked if the DEQ had any power to enforce the barges be covered once they leave the port. The answer, Callahan said, was no. 

When asked what would happen if one of these coal barges caught on fire, which is possible to happen, the DEQ said no agency has the capability to deal with that, and they would “let it burn and smolder down” until something could be done.

“The lack of emergency preparedness is shocking. When asked what would happen if a coal barge caught on fire, we were told essentially nothing could be done until the fire has gone out. This is absurd,” said Fuji Kreider, an ORA member from La Grande. “The only people cramming this project to go through is Ambre’ Energy, who has a reckless track record at best. We needs answers before anyone can get behind this.” 

Callahan said when asked repeatedly, if not the DEQ, who then regulates the whole the project as a cumulative study, attendees were given obscure answers and DEQ pointed to a list of four other agencies to direct their questions. 

The DEQ is holding a public meeting tonight on the same issue in Clatskanie and Thursday in Portland.