A new battle has emerged in the fight over proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.
The Oregon Department of State Lands recently issued a permit allowing the Port of Coos Bay to conduct the largest dredging project in an estuary in state history. The permit allows for dredging of the first 1.75 million cubic yards (mcy) of a 5.6-mcy project.
The reason for the massive dredging effort: Coos Bay—a town of about 16,000 people on the remote southern Oregon coast—has been targeted for construction of a coal export terminal and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility.
Earthjustice, representing a coalition of local residents, grassroots environmental, and clean-energy groups, in early January filed an appeal of the Oregon Department of State Lands’ decision to green light the $100 million project. While the “multi-purpose” dredging permit was initially sought to develop an LNG import terminal, the Port of Coos Bay recently entered into a confidential agreement with an undisclosed coal export company seeking to send coal overseas to Asia, and LNG backers have changed their plans to now export domestic gas instead.
Earthjustice appealed the dredging permit in part due to concerns about the harmful impacts on Coos Bay waterways that serve as salmon and oyster habitat that in turn support commercial and recreational fisheries.
“The people of Coos Bay, not international mining corporations, should decide the future of this community,” said Jan Hasselman, the Earthjustice attorney handling the appeal. “The Port of Coos Bay should stop conducting its business behind closed doors and start leveling with the public. Shoveling American rocks onto China-bound boats is not an economic development strategy.”
Because the coal export project details have been kept in the shadows by the Port of Coos Bay, Hasselman says, the Port and the Oregon Department of State Lands is unable to accurately balance public need and benefit against the proposed project.
“You can’t conduct a thorough analysis of the project if you can’t judge its benefit or harm,” Hasselman explained. “And you can’t make that judgment if you don’t know what the coal terminal project is going to look like. We don’t really know very much right now because everything has been kept secret.”
With domestic coal demand declining and projected to fall further over the next few years, coal companies with mines in Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin region are looking for markets beyond U.S. borders. China is importing more foreign coal than ever before and industry insiders are predicting that Chinese coal imports will double by 2015. Powder River Basin coal companies are eager to establish coal export terminals on the West Coast to move their product across the Pacific. Currently, the only options for shipping from the western side of the North American continent are a lone coal export facility just across the border in coastal British Columbia and a few small-volume Alaskan ports.
Coal export facilities are massive industrial sites where coal is stored in open-air piles as large as 80 acres. Inevitably, coal dust from the facility gets carried through the air, polluting local waterways and soil, and threatening the health of nearby communities. The coal from Montana and Wyoming would be transported to the Pacific Northwest in mile-long trains with uncovered box cars spewing coal dust on communities on the way to port. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that the carbon emissions generated by the proposed Pacific Northwest coal export terminals would exceed those of the Keystone XL project that was recently dealt a set-back by the Obama administration