Army Corps decision could expedite Morrow Pacific coal project
By Erik Siemers
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland division said will only conduct an environmental assessment of Ambre Energy's Morrow Pacific coal export terminal.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland division said it will only conduct an environmental assessment of Ambre Energy's Morrow Pacific coal export terminal proposed near Boardman and not the more exhaustive environmental impact statement.
The decision could be the difference between months and years of delay for the Australian coal company, which hopes to have its $250 million handling Asia-bound coal shipments by mid-2014, if not sooner.
An environmental assessment process is typically measured in months, while the EIS process threatened to add years to the project, which is seeking a permit from the Corps to build a new dock and terminal along the Columbia River at the Port of Morrow near Boardman.
The Corps, though, reserved the right to broaden the scope of its environmental review to an EIS at a later point.
“But for right now, we’re focusing on the direct, indirect and cumulative effects of the (project’s) construction activity,” said Scott Clemans, a spokesman for the Corps’ Portland district.
The Morrow Pacific Project calls for taking coal by rail to a new terminal at the Port of Morrow, where it will be transferred to covered barges and shipped downriver to a facility at the Port of St. Helens for loading onto ocean-going ships.
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It is one of five coal export terminals proposed in Oregon and Washington. Already, the Corps' Seattle office has opted to pursue the full EIS process for two terminal proposals in Washington: The Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham and Ambre’s Millennium Bulk Terminals proposed near Longview.
Clemans, though, said the Washington projects have a geographic reach measured in acres and traverse far greater amounts of wetlands and navigable waterways. The Morrow Pacific project, by comparison, is seeking a permit for “no more than 15,000-square-feet of dock.”
“The direct effects are not as readily apparent,” he said.
Some 170 people convened at Portland's City Hall Wednesday afternoon as the City Council voted to approve Commissioner Amanda Fritz's resolution calling for a full Army Corps evaluation and a separate "Health Impact Statement." The vote makes Portland the 26th public body — including cities, counties and port districts — to have aired concerns about the project publicly.
Opponents to the coal projects are urging the Corps to conduct a thorough, region-wide environmental review encompassing the cumulative impacts of every coal terminal proposed in the Pacific Northwest.
Another sticking point for opponents Wednesday was the Corps' noncommittal position on whether it would accept public comments during the environmental assessment process.
"The Army Corps is putting on blinders to the impacts from the proposed coal terminal at Port of Morrow if they do not conduct a full and thorough review of the community impacts," said Brett Vanden Heuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper, speaking on behalf of the Power Past Coal Coalition, a broader anti-coal organization that includes environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. "Anyone can take a look at a pile of coal vs. a pile of wheat and immediately know that one of these things is not like the other. Coal is a dirty and dangerous combustible fuel that would travel in open rail cars through our communities, and on barges and massive cargo ships through our commerce corridors, fishing grounds and recreation areas. The Army Corps needs to allow the public to weigh in with comments in this process and conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement."
Clemans said the National Environmental Policy Act doesn’t set requirements for including public comments in the environmental assessment process. The Corps' Portland district generally doesn’t release draft environmental assessments for public review on third party projects, but does release drafts when it comes to the Corps’ own projects.
The Corps has already solicited and received more than 30,000 comments from the project applicant, tribes, government agencies and the general public, which will be reviewed as part of the process, Clemans said.
Though the length of the environmental assessment process is only months long, Clemans said its exactly duration will depend on the breadth of the Corps’ consultation with area tribes, fish and wildlife agencies, and state historic preservation offices.
Already, the process has triggered some potential impacts on tribes related to culturally significant property and fishing rights treaties, requiring detailed consultations with various tribal groups, Clemans said. Next steps will also include consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Clemans said.
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