About 280 people turned out for an informational meeting to offer public comment on the Morrow Pacific Coal Project permitting through the Department of Environmental Quality.
The meeting held at the Port of Morrow is the first of three around the state with the second meeting Wednesday in Clatskanie at Clatskanie High School and the third on Thursday in Portland at the University of Portland.
People from Umatilla and Morrow counties donning Morrow Pacific baseball caps filled the Riverfront Room at the port alongside people in red t-shirts with large stickers emblazoned with the words, “No Coal Exports.”
Project proponents say family-wage jobs, additional property taxes and contributions to the Morrow County schools is a winning proposition, while opponents are concerned with coal dust coming off trains and the effects additional barge traffic will have on activities and fisheries in the Columbia River.
Peter Cornelison, Friends of the Columbia Gorge field representative, said his group brought 20 members to the meeting from Hood River, while others from La Grande and Walla Walla, Wash., showed up to encourage the department to deny the permits.
“I am concerned with those most vulnerable,” said Regna Merritt, Physicians for Social Responsibility coal campaign manager referring to those with health issues. “I am asking you to deny the permit until a health environmental impact statement is done.”
Ambre Energy, an Australian firm with an U.S. subsidiary, plans to ship low-sulfur coal by rail from Wyoming and Montana to the Port of Morrow and store the coal in a covered facility. From the buildings, Ambre would load coal onto covered barges and transfer it at the Port of St. Helens onto Panamax ocean liners bound for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
The company expects to start moving 3.5 million metric tons of coal and ramp up to 8 million metric tons. The firm plans to build a loading facility at the Port of Morrow, for which it needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of State Lands and the Department of Environmental Quality.
The Department of Environmental Quality is hosting the meetings, seeking comment on four pending permit applications — air contaminant discharge permit, general national pollution discharge elimination system permit, industrial stormwater permit and an individual water pollution control facilities permit.
The department originally told the company an air quality permit would not be needed, but after further review the department changed its decision to reflect if the piles were uncovered.
Tamra Mabbott, Umatilla County planning director, said the department should have stood by its decision to not require the permits.
“In January you decided there was not enough emissions to issue a permit, but you received a lot of public input and changed your mind. We can’t do that in local government,” Mabbott said. “ ... You can go through the state legislature and change the rule, but once it is in writing, don’t go back on your word.”
The Port of Morrow has also endorsed the project and entered into a lease option with the company, which expects to pay the port $15,000 per month to lease a dock and a $15 per rail car tariff on 80 rail cars daily. The company asked for no tax incentives.
The company has also pledged 10 cents per ton to go to the Morrow Education Foundation for all schools in Morrow County.
“We don’t take these decisions lightly,” said Marv Padberg, Port of Morrow commissioner. “We are not going to site another business here if it is going to jeopardize any of that production. ... This is the first company that has ever come to us and said, ‘We don’t want tax abatement. We’re willing to pay our share and on top of that we want to support the schools.’ They are doing this the Oregon way. ... There won’t be another place in the world that coal is transported like this.”
The deadline for public comment submission is Dec. 20 at 5 p.m. to Mark Fisher, air quality permit writer at (541) 633-2022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The environmental agency will record comments and questions at the information meetings and will post the audio recordings on the project web page and once permits are drafted, the agency will again ask for public comment.
Contact Anna Willard at email@example.com or 541-564-4536.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.