Anti-coal activists say the International Port of Coos Bay trying to hide information about proposed coal export projects by denying access to public records. On Wednesday, the Sierra Club appealed the Port’s decision to charge nearly $20,000 for access to 2,500 public records of coal export and storage proposals in and around Coos Bay.
The Port is evaluating four proposals from undisclosed companies, three of which appear to be planning coal-related projects (see the image above from October Port meeting minutes). Because the Port has signed non-disclosure agreements with the companies, the projects have been nicknamed Versatile, Mainstay, Clover and Glory.
Port Communications Manager Elise Hamner said the agreements prevent the Port from revealing the names of the companies involved while they explore potential projects. The agreements also make it more expensive to fulfill the Sierra Club’s request, she said, because an attorney would be reviewing thousands of documents and deciding which ones the Port should withhold.
Under Oregon public records law, the Port can decide to waive or reduce fees for public records if the agency decides it is in the public interest. But the Port decided waiving fees in the Sierra Club’s case was not in the public interest.
“The Sierra Club asked us to waive those fees, which means taxpayers would have to pay those costs,” said Hamner. “We believe the public interest requires Sierra Club to pay for that. We’re willing to go through the process as long as they pay.”
Shane Levy of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign said the fee is “exorbitant” and should be waived because of the environmental impacts associated with coal exports statewide. Exporting coal has the potential to spread harmful coal dust in the air and water along the transportation routes, he said.
Moreover, he argued the Port is using the public records fee to withhold information about the Port’s coal export plans.
“They have not been transparent,” he said. “They have not been honest about a project that has the potential to impact not just Coos Bay but the entire state. We don’t know who the coal providers are or how much of their product they want to send through the state of Oregon.”
Levy sent me this interesting set of documents that chronicle the back-and-forth legal debate between the Port and the Sierra Club since June over why the records request costs so much and whether it deserves the public interest fee waiver.
The Sierra Club repeatedly argued the Port was overcharging and that the nonprofit organization deserves the waiver because it intends to use the records to educate the public through its Beyond Coal campaign:
“The Sierra Club maintains a vast dissemination network reaching hundreds-of-thousands of people each month. Sierra Club intends to disseminate the requested information; all of the above supports a finding that disclosure of the requested information will contribute to the public’s understanding of the Port’s plans for coal export.”
The Port asked The Sierra Club for detailed information about its operations – including the income sources of people on the group’s board of directors to see if they had financial interest in an energy source that competes with coal, as well as the names of local Sierra Club members – to determine whether the fees should be waived in the public interest:
“The average taxpayer in the Port District would read the materials you have provided and come to the conclusion that the Sierra Club is adamantly opposed to the development of any Port facility that would be involved in the transportation of coal. It would not be unreasonable for that citizen to demand to know a little more about (the Sierra Club) before agreeing to use his or her tax dollars to fund a response to this public records request.”
The Sierra Club refused to supply some of the information the Port requested because it was not required by law.
“…the Sierra Club will continue to resist the Port’s inquiries that constitute an unduly invasive fishing expedition into the personal lives of the Club’s members and Board, areas that have no relevance to the Port’s decision on the fee waiver request before it.”
And the Port decided the public interest waiver couldn’t be granted without that information.