The South County Spotlight broke a big story today on the coal export front. Apparently Portland General Electric is worried about the impact of coal dust on its natural gas power plants at Port Westward.
PGE leases 850 acres of land at the site from the Port of St. Helens, and Kinder Morgan wants to use some or all of that land for a coal export terminal that could handle up to 30 million tons of coal a year at full build-out.
But PGE spokesman Steve Corson said today his company has refused to release the property for the export terminal – at least as it's currently proposed – because of concerns about coal dust near its natural gas-fired power plants:
“The concern is that the coal dust could interfere with our equipment at the plant, and with operations of that equipment, which involves various kinds of air intake and so forth," Corson told OPB. "Our plants there represent an investment of literally hundreds of millions of dollars and are an important component of service to our customers.”
The acknowledgement of a coal dust reality – by a utility that runs a coal-fired power plant upriver in Boardman – is something new.
Coal terminal developers have downplayed the impact coal dust will have on the surrounding areas, saying they can to contain the dust with chemicals on the coal trains and inside buildings and covered conveyors at the terminal sites.
Corson was careful to note that PGE isn't opposing coal exports overall. The utility hasn't weighed in yet on the other coal export terminal proposed at the Port of St. Helens.
Nonetheless, opponents of coal exports were delighted. Dan Serres of Columbia Riverkeeper said if the coal dust is a problem for a natural gas plant it's also a problem for the people who live near the terminal and the rail delivery routes.
It's not clear yet whether this means Kinder Morgan's project is kaput.
Port of St. Helens Executive Director Patrick Trapp told The Oregonian Kinder Morgan could change its project to address PGE's concerns:
"It is not a deal killer, that I can say emphatically, 100 percent," Trapp said. "This project is not dead."
Trapp has his eye on the revenue the project would bring to Columbia County, and its potential to make use of some valuable-but-unoccupied port property. As The Wall Street Journal reported last month:
"On an annual basis, any projects of this size could contribute over $1 million to the county in property taxes," said Patrick Trapp, executive director of the Port of St. Helens. Only one other tenant now generates this amount of property-tax revenue, he said. Of 2,000 leasable acres at the port, only 700 are occupied now, he said. "If all the stars align," Mr. Trapp said, construction could proceed on both coal facilities by the middle of next year.
In his interview with OPB's Rob Manning, Corson recognized PGE's position on the Kinder Morgan project could have an impact on the Port of St. Helens.
"We have a long relationship with the Port of St. Helens, and we view that as a cooperative relationship," he said. "We want and intend to work with them on economic development projects in the area within the constraints we face as far as compatibility with our plant."