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Coal Train Slowing at Port?

The recent announcement that two foreign investors have pulled out of the International Port of Coos Bay’s coal export proposal doesn’t mean the coal train plans have been entirely derailed. The announcement leads to even more questions, says Bob Ferris, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands, one of several Lane County groups working to stop the fossil fuel exports. 

Objections to the coal trains range from concern over the dust dispersed along the routes as well as the larger issue of feeding global warming-inducing coal plants overseas. “The best use for the deepwater port at the Port of Coos Bay is to export locally produced Oregon goods such as farming produce and timber products,” Lisa Arkin of Beyond Toxics says. She says it is “nefarious” as well as “unsustainable and truly harmful” to mine coal in Montana and haul it through dozens of communities, the Columbia River Gorge, the Willamette Valley and “much of Oregon’s fragile coastline.”

According to documents posted on the port’s website in response to a public records request by Oregon Public Broadcasting, both Mitsui, a Japanese company incorporated in New York, and Korean Electric Power Corp. have terminated their agreements with the port. A third investor, Metro Ports out of California, has until March 31 to make a decision, the documents say. 

“It seems that Mitsui found that coal exports at Coos Bay doesn’t pencil out economically,” Laura Stevens of the Sierra Club says. “We already know it doesn’t pencil out for our health, environment and local communities all along the rail line.”

Ferris says while the Korean power company and Mitsui have not given any reasons for “bailing” on the coal export plan, he suspects it has to do with coal exports being politically unpopular and that the plan will result in legal challenges. 

He also says the only reason it has been economically worthwhile for Asia to import coal from 7,000 miles away is because it’s being sold so cheaply. “A buck a ton, you can’t even buy dirt for a buck a ton,” Ferris says.

Ferris explains that under the first Bush administration the Powder River Basin was “decertified.” So even though it produces 40 percent of U.S. coal, it’s not considered a coal-producing region and it’s not subject to the same rules and environmental regulations. As a result, the coal is sold for much less. 

But Ferris says with Sen. Ron Wyden calling for an examination of the possible millions in royalties lost from the mining of coal on public lands due to out-of-date regulations, he thinks “those two companies saw the writing on the wall.” He also points out that in February Mitsui agreed to pay $90 million for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Ferris says if the Coos Bay coal proposal to export Powder River Basin coal went through, it would export 10 million tons of coal a year and be giving away something like $50 million in subsidies and natural resources to two foreign companies and competing economies, “which doesn’t make sense.”

In addition to Coos Bay, Oregon faces two other coal export proposals in Morrow and St. Helens. Oregon will decide whether it will approve the Morrow Pacific coal project on April 1. For more info go to http://wkly.ws/1fu 

At 5:30 pm March 14 No Coal Eugene, Oregonians for Black Mesa and other groups will celebrate the investors pulling out of the Coos Bay project upstairs at the Growers Market at 454 Willamette St.