Standing knee-deep in a thicket of his mint plants north of Clatskanie on Wednesday, farmer Mike Seely points to a row of industrial storage tanks just beyond the edge of his crops.
On the other side of those tanks lies the Columbia River and a dock owned by the Port of St. Helens. That’s where Ambre Energy wants to transfer millions of tons of coal a year from river barges to export ships.
It’s a piece of the larger Morrow Pacific coal export project, which would take coal from the Powder River Basin, ship it by rail to the Port of Morrow in Boardman, and transfer it to barges that would make their way down the Columbia to Seely’s neck of the woods.
“Where we’re standing at right now, we’re approximately a half-mile from where they’d be unloading their ships,” said Seely. “Our closest field is about a quarter-mile from the dock.”
Morrow Pacific has told Seely the coal transfer operation won’t cover his fields with coal dust. The company plans on using a unique coal transferring system to control dust and spillage. But the stakes are high for Seely’s 450-acre farm, where the mint plants yield a high-quality oil that is used in the company’s hand-made peppermint patties, mint meltaways and peppermint bark. The farm’s retail business is growing like crazy. But even a little bit of coal dust on the plants would ruin it all, Seely said.
This time of year, right before the harvest, Seely said he doesn’t even drive a tractor around the mint fields to protect the oil on the leaves from any stress or contamination. He doesn’t even want rain falling on the leaves.
“If a little potash flies out here, that’s not such a big deal for us because potash is good for the plants,” he said. “But coal would be a disaster.”
If any coal dust were to escape from the Morrow Pacific project and land on his fields, he said, “the coal, it’s going to cling to the plant. And when we go to harvest it, you can’t just shake it off. It’s not practical to do that.
And the more you handle the mint, the more you burst those little bubbles of mint oil. Once they’re burst, the sunlight will evaporate them. Even washing it – if we wash it, we lose oil.”
But leaving the coal dust on the plant would ruin the flavor, Seely said.
“It’s going to give it a terrible note,” he said. “If we were to get a dusting, we’re toast. How do I go back to my customers and say they have to wait till next year? How do I go back to my bank and say I couldn’t sell this year’s crop? We’d be finished right then and there.”
At first, Seely was more worried about the Kinder Morgan coal export project, which was proposed to move coal by train to a site right next to his fields and store it there before transferring it onto ships.
But last month, Seely’s neighbor and landlord, Portland General Electric, vetoed the company’s plans to set up in that location, saying coal dust from the project could harm the utility’s nearby natural-gas-fired power plants.
The Morrow Pacific coal export project has a much smaller footprint in the area – the whole operation will happen on the river alongside the Port dock.
Clark Moseley, president and CEO of the Morrow Pacific Project, said his company did a lot of homework to design a system that will transfer the coal from barges to ships on the water without spilling any coal or releasing coal dust.
Here’s how it would work: An ocean-going ship pulls up to the Port of St. Helens dock. A trans-loader pulls up alongside it, and a barge will pull up on the other side of the trans-loader.
The trans-loader has an enclosed auger on one side that lifts the coal off the barge and onto enclosed conveyor belts. The conveyor belts deliver the coal directly into the hold of the ship.
“Throughout the world, there are millions of tons of materials being loaded directly from barges to vessels,” Moseley said.
“We researched those, spent time analyzing them and then looked at different methodologies, taking into account all the concerns that have been expressed to us. The trans-loader has been selected and the equipment has been designed to be no spillage, no dust, and totally enclosed up to the point the coal is loaded into the vessel, so there will be very minimal impact.”
Moseley said no other operation he knows of is using all those dust and spillage controls in one place.
“It’s unique,” he said. “It’s the first of its kind utilizing all of that.”
Seely said he’s hoping the company is right, that the transfers of up to 8 million tons of coal a year won’t release any coal dust.
“They actually called me,” he said. “They told me we shouldn’t get any coal dust. Then they said you won’t have any coal dust because of all the new technology we’re using. But they can’t give us a 100-percent assurance that we’re not going to have an issue. And that’s what makes us real nervous. I’d like to know, if they’re so confident, give me a written assurance.”