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Environment | Communities

Columbia River Towns May Team Up To Export Coal

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BOARDMAN, Ore. — A train clanks down the tracks as it pulls through the Port of Morrow in Eastern Oregon. It’s not an unusual sight on the edge of Boardman. The rattle and hum of transporting goods through here is a part of life.

There are barges and long-haul trucks. And the railroad.

One commodity already makes its way down these tracks: coal. That’s because Boardman is home to Portland General Electric’s coal-fired power plant.

Mayor Chet Phillips says that’s why people in this small town aren’t worried about coal’s environmental impacts — or the prospect that more could be coming to Boardman under a plan to ship coal to Asia.

Phillips says residents of his town haven’t had ill effects from coal in 32 years.

“People have lived here for the entire existence of the coal-fired plant. We’re not sick. We’re not dying,” Phillips says.

When the plant is running, four to five trains from the Powder River Basin travel the tracks running through Boardman each week.

More coal could be coming to Boardman from that same region straddling Montana and Wyoming. It’s one of six proposed Northwest destinations for coal trains from Powder River. From each of these Northwest ports, various energy companies want to move the coal across the Pacific Ocean to Asia.

The Morrow Pacific proposal would make Boardman the first stop in a two-step process for getting coal off trains and en route to China, Korea, or Japan. Step two would be to barge it 200 miles down the Columbia River from Boardman to the Port of St. Helens, and from there, transfer it to ocean-going vessels.

A power plant’s coal-dust know-how

Head west down Interstate 84 and you’ll pass the Boardman Power Plant. It’s surrounded by wide-open rangeland, like much of the region.

Plant manager Loren Mayer stands on the roof. It’s a windy day. Gusts blow up to 50 miles per hour.

“This is the coal yard you can see from here,” Mayer points to a long stretch of gray down below. “It doesn’t look like it from this vantage point, but there’s nearly a million tons of coal on the ground right there.”

But you cannot see any dust particles blowing off the pile. Right now, it stores six months’ worth of fuel.

“Coal dust can be handled. You just have to know how to do it,” Mayer says.

An industrial foam is sprayed on the coal at the power plant. It’s kind of a mix of shaving cream and super glue. Mayer says it keeps the larger particles on top and traps the dust underneath.

Although the goal of suppressing coal dust is the same for the Morrow Pacific project, its technique would be different than at the Boardman power plant. The entire coal-shipping facility would be covered, from the storage area to the barges. And less contact with open water and air could mean less permitting for the project. That’s why the Morrow Pacific project could be the first coal export terminal to be built in the Pacific Northwest.

‘Oh my god. We’re gonna get hit’

The Morrow Pacific coal export project could add 12 barge tows on the Columbia. And as long as barges have steered up the river, they’ve created conflict with tribal fishers. Paul Lumley is a citizen of the Yakama Nation tribe. He’s experienced the dangers firsthand.

Lumley remembers one dark night as a teenager. The motor on his dad’s fishing boat stalled. And that’s when they saw the barge. Lumley’s dad shone a light on him as he frantically waved his arms. His brother worked to get the boat’s motor started while the barge barreled toward them.

“You know, they have a lot of mass, and there was no way to slow that barge down or turn it. And it was coming at us pretty fast and was dark. I just thought, ‘Oh, my god. We’re gonna get hit,’” Lumley says.

The barge came close but missed his boat. Years later, Lumley is the executive director Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. He also worries about tribal fishing sites right where the terminal would be built.

“If they build out the Morrow Port for this coal transport facility, then it will permanently destroy those fishing sites,” Lumley says.

Oregon’s Port of Arlington faced a similar situation when its proposed expansion conflicted with a tribe’s treaty fishing sites. That port’s project is still tied up in court battles years later.

(Hover over markers to hear reports on coal in communities of the Northwest. Then click “website” for more EarthFix coverage. Click here for larger map view. Note: Train routes are approximations. They illustrate potential corridors based on existing lines and publicly available information.)

‘This is just another commodity’

Back at the Port of Morrow, general manager Gary Neal watches barges move up and down the Columbia from his windowed office.

“Here comes a partial barge tow now, and that’s just one barge. No maybe two, or three. Can’t see ‘em all yet,” he says.

Neal says more barges are just more of the same for the area that’s barged grain around the world. He says shipping is critical to Eastern Oregonians’ livelihoods.

“When you have an ag-based economy, that’s what you do. You export. And so this is just another commodity that’s being traded out into that world economy that we live in,” Neal says.

Not all farmers in Oregon see it that way. Down river, some growers are not so sure they want to export coal near their fields.

Mint tea with a note of coal

Mike Seely is a mint farmer near Clatskanie, a town on the Lower Columbia River. His mint plants are about 3 feet high now. And as he walks through the dense crops, he points toward the dock where the Morrow Pacific project would transfer up to 8 million tons of coal from barges to ships.

Seely’s family farm harvests mint leaves for tea and oils that are used in hand-made peppermint chocolates. A dusting of coal would ruin everything.

“The mint would pick that up, that note. And so you would have that coal dust, that coal note, to your oils, to your tea,” Seely says. “The plant has enough hairs on the leaf that you could never get that coal dust off of that leaf plant.”

Seely says he wants a guarantee that the Morrow Pacific project won’t dust his crops with coal. So far he hasn’t gotten one.

Morrow President and CEO Clark Moseley says Seely has nothing to worry about. His company has developed a unique way of controlling coal dust during the transfer by combining existing technologies in a totally new way. The process would take place entirely on the Columbia River, alongside a dock owned by the Port of St. Helens.

First, an export ship pulls up to the dock. Then another floating vessel called a transloader pulls up next to it. The transloader is equipped with two critical elements. The first is an enclosed auger, which lifts the coal off the barge in a vertical conveyer that looks like a giant screw.

The second is a series of enclosed conveyer belts that deliver the coal directly into the hold of the export ship. Moseley said his company would be the first to use this transferring method.

Clark Moseley

“It has been designed to be no spillage, no dust, totally enclosed. So there will be very minimal impact of coal dust or spillage,” Moseley says.

Tax revenue and jobs

The Morrow Pacific project has supporters in Columbia County. Chief among them is the Port of St. Helens director, Patrick Trapp. He’s excited about the prospect of the company using the port’s vacant dock to generate tax revenue and local jobs.

“There would be dock workers working the dock itself. There would be individuals on tugs, whether they be masters and or mates and or deckhands that are managing an moving the cargo. There would be individuals on the transloader that would lift the coal out of the barge and move it into the ship,” Trapp says.

Courtesy of Morrow Pacific

Barged coal vs. trained coal

Trapp also spends a lot of time explaining the difference between the Morrow Pacific project and another coal export terminal proposed on Port of St. Helens property by Kinder Morgan. One key difference is, Morrow Pacific wouldn’t bring coal trains through towns in the Columbia Gorge and along the lower Columbia River. Instead, it would send a tow of four barges floating down the river from Boardman five days a week.

The Kinder Morgan project would export more than three times as much coal, shipping it on trains and storing it on land – some of which is currently covered by the Seely farm’s mint.

“The Kinder Morgan project with railing the coal in, they wanted to park it right here. If they moved in with that, then we were finished. We knew that,” Mike Seely says. “With the barge one, we don’t know.”

Morrow Pacific needs two permits to get started. One from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and one from the Oregon Department of State Lands. Preliminary decisions on the project are expected later this summer.

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