In a step widely held to advance the possibility of coal trains passing through Salem and the Willamette Valley, the Morrow Pacific Project signed letters of intent with Lake Oswego’s Gunderson and Portland’s Vigor Industrial on July 23.
The letters signify an agreement between the two to construct twenty enclosed barges to help with the shipment of low-sulfur coal from the Intermountain region (Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin) to Asia for burning.
Currently, coal is shipped by rail from the “Intermountains” to an enclosed warehouse at the Port of Morrow, which is located on the Columbia River in Northeast Oregon. The twenty barges Gunderson and Vigor Industrial would build would then move it down the Columbia to the Port of St. Helens, near Portland. After that, an enclosed transloader is expected to transfer the coal to oceangoing vessels bound for Asia.
Between March and May of 2012, 3,800 letters were sent to the Army Corps of Engineers in support of the coal project.
Proponents say the new Morrow Pacific contract means hundreds of jobs for Oregonians and that the project raises the bar for environmental standards in coal export operations. Opponents, such as the nonpartisan Union of Concerned Scientists, a group fighting climate change, say that any use of dirty coal worldwide means an unacceptable increase in global warming gases.
Oceana, an international organization of scientists and ocean advocates, cite recent severe consequences for coal plants in Chile, including locals suffering from heavy metal contamination, seafood found with copper, arsenic and mercury from pipes that dump wastewater directly into the ocean and a cloud of sulfur dioxide that drifted over a Chilean school, sickening children.
In the Willamette Valley, anti-coal activists are concerned that any advance in distribution of Powder River Basin coal increases the likelihood of open coal trains moving daily through towns like Salem to the Port of Coos Bay to our south.
The Gunderson/Vigor Industrial process is still contingent on project financing and obtaining of permits by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of State Lands and Department of Environmental Quality.
The Union of Concerned Scientists and CREDO action network asks interested parties to contact the US Army Corps of Engineers (203-761-5903) to urge them to do a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that might halt the process.
On July 18, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers. He requested a “comprehensive, expedited programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed coal export facilities.”
However, Merkley did not state a position on the issue.
The current timeline projected by Morrow Pacific has barge construction beginning mid-2013.