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Coal Votes Continue — or Not

Oregon is facing the prospect of coal trains rumbling through the state bringing coal, and coal dust and increased diesel fumes, thanks to several proposals for coal export terminals along the coast and Columbia River. Gov. John Kitzhaber and Sen. Jeff Merkley have requested an extensive federal environmental review of the effects of exporting coal to Asia, having it burned there and blowing back to the Northwest. Local governments have attempted to weigh in on the coal issue as well. 

The Board of Lane County Commissioners decided Oct. 17 that it would not vote on a controversial resolution to support the Coos Bay Bulk Terminal and its coal export proposal, “Project Mainstay,” while the Eugene City Council voted Oct. 21 to oppose shipping coal through Eugene. The City Council’s resolution supports the request for a comprehensive federal review, and it directs city attorneys to research if state and federal public health and safety laws could be used to prevent coal being transported through the city. 

After the board decided not to vote on its coal resolution, which would have in effect supported the coal terminal, Commissioner Rob Handy proposed the board work on a resolution that, like the city’s, would call for a review of the effects of coal. Handy says the original county resolution was “so heavily weighted to coal and the port that our other aspirations and values didn’t get in.” 

Handy says that he wants more detail on the impacts to workers who handle coal up and down the line and the effects of mercury, lead and arsenic. He says the commissioners heard strongly from “folks all around the county” about their concerns over the effects of coal on air and on the waters of Oregon’s rivers and territorial sea. 

The commissioners heard public comment Oct. 16 and 17 in Florence and Eugene after originally scheduling to vote on the resolution Oct. 3 without asking for public input. Handy says the county’s agenda committee, which includes board chair Sid Leiken and conservative vice chair Jay Bozievich, put together the agendas for board meetings. But he says he and fellow progressive Commissioner Pete Sorenson don’t get information in advance and “are always asking questions about what’s going on.” Sorenson says that when the conservative majority took control of the board in 2010, they voted out a “good governance” ordinance that called for agendas to have detailed information.

The county’s reasons for not getting the coal vote information out to the public include: reduced staffing, a sick staffer, a death in a staffer’s family and that the county routinely votes on potentially controversial issues. 

The board announced on Oct. 24 that starting Dec. 1, it will post agendas and materials a week in advance.

The board held off voting after Leiken said that he was told by the Port of Coos Bay that the “potential project” was “not moving forward at this time.” When asked if the board’s proposed vote in support of the resolution had been at the request of the port, Elise Hamner, spokesperson for the port, says she believes the county proposed its own resolution.

While the board voted 5-0 to look into Handy’s resolution that would call for a comprehensive review of the environmental and health effects of coal exports in the Northwest, both Handy and Sorenson have doubts over whether the new resolution will make it to a vote. The resolution is to be sent to the county’s Legislative Committee — the same committee that proposed the resolution in support of the port — for review and more work. Bozievich, who has said he feels that coal concerns have been “hyped,” is a member of the Legislative Committee along with county lobbyist Alex Cuyler.