How coal once brought economic gain to Portland

Erik Siemers, Business Journal staff writer

Erik Siemers covers technology, manufacturing, footwear/apparel, and energy for the Portland Business Journal

A recurring theme in the debate over proposed Columbia River coal export terminals is how this debate has all been done before.

The Port of Portland in the early 1980s embarked upon a plan for a coal terminal at what is now the port’s Terminal 4.

Seattle-based environmental advocacy group The Sightline Institute, citing a 1984 report in the Oregonian, notes how the port entered into a 25-year lease with a group called Pacific Coal to export coal to Asia. But after $25 million invested, the project was scuttled in 1983 after demand from Asia proved not to be so robust.

In the eyes of coal export opponents — many of whom question whether demand from China is as strong as advertised — history is repeating itself.

“The Port of Portland tried a coal export terminal in the early 1980s and it collapsed,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Hood River environmental advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper. “The rhetoric was exactly the same as we see today. The market shifted and they never shipped a single ounce of product.”

But officials at the Port of Portland — no fans of coal, certainly — aren’t as willing to portray the 1980s coal experiment as a failure.

Port spokesman Josh Thomas says any notion of a coal project at the Port of Portland today is “essentially a nonstarter.” But the work on that 1980s coal terminal paved the way to what is today a thriving operation at T4 exporting potash, a bulk commodity used in fertilizers.

Last year the port exported 5.2 million short tons of bulk minerals, more than half coming from potash.

Thomas said the port put “very little capital” into the project outside of staff time and some “basic land acquisition costs.” The bulk of the work was paid for by Pacific Coal and reverted back to the port.

That early work “contributed to the success of the potash lease,” Thomas said.

So from within coal’s smoggy haze, there comes a silver lining.

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