Hundreds of people turned out Tuesday in Portland and Hermiston, Ore., for simultaneously held hearings on a proposal to transport coal by train to the Columbia River so it can be shipped to Asia.
Public hearings conducted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality served as the official reason for the turnout. But some of the liveliest moments were outside the hearing rooms — especially in Portland during evening rush-hour when opponents orchestrated a flash mob with singing and dancing and conducted what organizers dubbed a “people’s hearing” on coal exports.
The Oregon DEQ’s two hearings dealt with the Morrow Pacific Project, which would transport nearly 9 million tons of coal through the Pacific Northwest to Asia.
Traffic sped by as Portland resident Mark Hill joined the early-evening crowd in Portland. He said the department is not considering the bigger picture.
“They are conscientiously ignoring the real issues: the elephant in the room about the state of our environment, the state of our atmosphere, the state of the health of the nation,” Hill said.
Developers of the Morrow Pacific Project are seeking permits for air and water pollution and stormwater runoff during the construction and operation of the project. If built, it would move about 9 million tons of coal per year. The project is one of three coal export terminals under consideration in the Pacific Northwest.
Larry Lindsay is a commissioner at the Port of Morrow in Eastern Oregon. That’s where one portion of the Morrow Pacific Project would be built. Lindsay has been on the commission for 46 years.
“During that time, we’ve studied a number of new industries,” he said during the hearing in Hermiston. “I believe that the proposed coal shipping facility is one of the most exciting projects to come to Morrow County in half a century.”
About 500 people had signed up to speak at the hearings. Several opponents of the project were among the early speakers in Portland. They warned that transporting coal along the Columbia River would harm salmon and water quality.
According to the draft permits DEQ has already put together, the project would not exceed any of the state’s air or water pollution limits. But opponents were adamant that the scope of these permits is far too narrow to address the full environmental impact of mining millions of tons of coal, transporting it for thousands of miles by train, barge, and ship, and burning it in coal-fired power plants in Asia.
Environmentalist Don Steinke was among those at the Portland hearing. Although he thought it was important to take part in the hearing, Steinke said he thinks it will ultimately be up to other agencies and elected officials, particularly Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.
“I think that this is not going to be a regulatory decision. It’s going to be a political decision,” said Steinke, a volunteer with Columbia Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club. “DEQ appears not to be able to consider all the impacts.”
The project would transport coal by train from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to Boardman in eastern Oregon. Coal would then be barged down the Columbia River to the Port of St. Helens northwest of Portland near the town of Clatskanie. From there, it would then be loaded onto ships and transported to Asia.
Supporters championed job creation, especially at the hearing in the Eastern Oregon city of Hermiston. Rod Osgood, who lives a few miles from where one terminal would be built in Boardman, spoke in favor of the project. He said all forms of energy have risks.
“Driving a train from Point A to Point B with coal in it, and then putting it in a facility, which it goes into contained barges, and then goes down the Columbia River and stays contained until gets inside of a ship and goes to some foreign country, to me, seems like a risk that’s worth the reward,” Osgood said.
The low-key atmosphere for most of the day at the two hearings contrasted the more raucous scene during an informational hearing last December in Portland on the same coal-export project. Back then, hundreds of people packed into one room cheering and shouting. This time around, the hearing room at the Portland Convention Center only accommodated about 50 people total. The community college hearing room in Hermiston never held more than 35 people at any given time.
One explanation for the quieter and smaller hearing-room gatherings: organizers had people sign up in advance for specific time slots to testify. That eliminated the need for people to come early and crowd into hearing rooms while waiting for hours for a chance to speak out.
At the Hermiston meeting, a representative of the Yakama Nation asked the Department to deny the permits. Kristina Proszek is the environmental review coordinator for the Native American tribe.
“The Nation is greatly concerned with fugitive dust emissions coming off of the railcars that are going to be sitting idle at the site facility,” Proszek said
She said the Yakama Nation is also concerned with treaty fishing rights near the terminal.