Port Developers Charge State Regulators with Stalling (The Oregonian)
Oregon regulators unfairly stalling on coal export permits, Ambre Energy says
By Scott Learn, The Oregonian
Coal exporter Ambre Energy and the company’s labor and shipyard supporters are turning up the heat on Oregon regulators, accusing Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality of unfairly delaying permits that would create jobs.
Ambre sent a letter to DEQ this week asking the agency to issue a draft permit “immediately.”
DEQ staff have told Ambre that they’ve been ordered to “cease work” on the most crucial air quality permit request, first filed 13 months ago, company officials said.
Ambre has proposed building a Columbia River coal terminal at Boardman’s Port of Morrow. With four other coal export projects on the boards in Oregon and Washington, Ambre wants to be the first to export coal to Asia through the Northwest, starting up next year.
The pressure is high on all sides: The coal export project has drawn thousands of critical public comments, and DEQ’s permits would be the first issued on any of the Northwest export proposals. Ambre has contracts with South Korean utilities to buy the coal, but the young Australian company has suffered a string of losses, putting a premium on speed.
And two big Portland manufacturers — Gunderson Marine and Vigor Industrial — are anxious for $75 million in contracts from Ambre to build covered coal barges. The barges would transport coal from Port of Morrow to a Port of St. Helens dock for transfer to ocean-going ships.
Mark Eitzen, general manager at Gunderson’s Northwest Portland plant, told The Oregonian’s editorial board this week that the barges would create two years of manufacturing work.
Wages are higher in Portland than in the south or Mexico, Eitzen said, and Gunderson needs policy makers’ support to keep its company headquarters and manufacturing jobs in Oregon.
“We’ve stayed the course, but I honestly don’t know how long that can last in Portland,” Eitzen said. “I think the headquarters becomes an issue as well.”
DEQ spokeswoman Joanie Stevens-Schwenger said the permit is “on hold” as the agency reviews more than 5,000 public comments received on Ambre’s request.
DEQ does not have to meet specific deadlines in permit reviews, she said, and there is no target date for deciding on Ambre’s permits.
“We’re still evaluating all the public concerns on this,” Stevens-Schwenger said. “We understand the economic development conundrum, but we still have to do our due diligence because our job is environmental protection.”
DEQ held three public hearings in December, including one in Portland that drew roughly 800 people, most strongly opposed.
Coal export opponents say Ambre’s Morrow Pacific project would dramatically increase barge traffic on the Columbia, impinge on tribal fishing grounds and encourage Asian countries to build more coal-fired power plants, increasing global warming.
Supporters say British Columbia terminals, already exporting coal, will take the jobs and the exports if the Northwest doesn’t, still using uncovered coal trains that cut through Washington and perhaps Oregon. They tout the potential for tax revenues in rural counties, construction jobs and permanent jobs at the terminals.
For Ambre’s Morrow Pacific project, the two ports would get 25 to 30 permanent jobs each at full build-out, Ambre says. The $242 million construction budget would go mostly to local workers, said John Mohlis, executive secretary of the Oregon Building Trades Council.
Ambre is also seeking permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Department of State Lands. The DSL permit has already been delayed to Sept. 1.
But Ambre officials say the company will begin construction and barge work — assuming its board approves — if DEQ issues the air quality permit.
“If we move forward with the DEQ permit, we can show to our investors that there is a regulatory (system) in this state that moves forward, that has clarity,” Morrow Pacific spokeswoman Liz Fuller said.
Ambre first applied for the air quality permit in Feb. 2012. DEQ initially said it didn’t need one — the storage barns and conveyer belts at the train-fed terminal would be covered, unlike other terminal proposals, limiting emissions.
But the agency reversed course, saying its air permit needs to be based on uncontrolled emissions. Ambre re-applied in July.
Clark Mosely, Morrow Pacific’s president and CEO, said the air permit should have taken 5 months or less. The company estimates at most 1,000 pounds of coal dust emissions a year at the terminal, designed to ship up to 8.8 million tons annually. That’s well below regulatory thresholds of 10,000 pounds for stricter regulation.
Critics, including the Sierra Club, have questioned Ambre’s emissions estimates, arguing that they should include pollution from barges, tugs and trains.
Political pressure on coal export is high as well. Earlier this week, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called on the federal government to examine the consequences for global greenhouse gas emissions and air quality.
Stevens Schwenger of DEQ said neither the governor nor his staff have requested delays on Ambre’s permits.
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