Columbia River Towns May Team Up To Export Coal

Jul 9, 2012

Only one of the Northwest’s various coal export proposals would rely on two different ports. That has residents in a pair of Columbia River towns in wondering if coal will be good for their communities. EarthFix reporter Courtney Flatt has the first part of our story in Boardman.

Northwest residents are scrutinizing proposals to ship Montana and Wyoming coal across the Pacific to Asia. Only one of those plans would spread the shipping work among two Columbia River cities. That has residents of an Eastern Oregon town of Boardman and people living near the Port of St.Helens 200 miles away asking if coal will be good for their communities. EarthFix reporters Courtney Flatt and Cassandra Profita visited the two proposed terminal sites. Our story begins in Boardman. Courtney Flatt has more.

A train pulls through the Port of Morrow in eastern Oregon. It’s not an unusual site on the edge of Boardman. The rattle and hum of transporting goods through here is a part of life.

There are barges and long-haul trucks. A railroad snakes in front of the Morrow Pacific Project plot.

One commodity already makes its way down these tracks: coal. Boardman is also home to Portland General Electric’s coal-fired power plant.

Mayor Chet Phillips says that’s why people in this small town are not worried about coal’s environmental impacts. He says they haven’t seen any in 32 years.

When the plant is running, four to five trains from the Powder River Basin travel these tracks each week.

Head west down Interstate 84 and you’ll pass the Boardman Power Plant. It’s surrounded by wide-open rangeland, like much of the region.

Manager Loren Mayer stands on the roof of the plant. It’s a windy day. Gusts blow up to 50 miles per hour.

Mayer: “This is the coal yard you can see from here. It doesn’t look like it from this vantage point, but there’s nearly a million tons of coal on the ground right there.”

But you cannot see any dust particles blowing off the pile. Right now, it stores six month’s worth of fuel.

“Coal dust can be handled. You just have to know how to do it.”

An industrial foam is sprayed on the coal at the power plant. It’s kind of a mix of shaving cream and super glue. Mayer says it keeps the larger particles on top and traps the dust underneath.

Now, measures at the Morrow Pacific Project will be different than at the Boardman plant. The entire facility would be covered, from the storage area to the barges.

Exporting coal could triple the weekly number of barges on the Columbia. As long as barges have steered up the river, they’ve created conflict with tribal fishers. Paul Lumley is a citizen of the Yakama Nation tribe. He’s experienced the dangers firsthand.

Lumley remembers one dark night as a teenager. The motor on his dad’s fishing boat stalled. And that’s when they saw the barge. Lumley’s dad shone a light on him as he frantically waved his arms. His brother worked to get the boat’s motor started while the barge barreled toward them.

Lumley: “You know, they have a lot of mass, and there was no way to slow that barge down or turn it. And it was coming at us pretty fast. And it was dark. I just thought, ‘Oh, my god. We’re gonna get hit.’”

The barge came close but missed his boat. Years later, Lumley is the executive director Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. He also worries about tribal fishing sites right where the terminal would be built.

Lumley: “If they build out the Morrow Port for this coal transport facility, then it will permanently destroy those fishing sites.”

Back at the Port of Morrow, general manager Gary Neal says more barges are just more of the same for the area that’s barged grain around the world. He says shipping is tied to eastern Oregon’s livelihood.

Lumley: “When you have an ag-based economy, that’s what you do. You export. And so this is just another commodity that’s being traded out into that world economy that we live in.”

Not all farmers in Oregon see it that way. Down river, some growers are not so sure they want to export coal near their fields.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio