Standing in front of a Hood River audience for the first time since being re-elected to an eighth term in the U.S House of Representatives, Congressman Greg Walden covered a wide range of topics with his constituents last Friday, but one got significantly more time than others.
After opening with an update on the “fiscal cliff” and what he had done to help avert it, Walden faced numerous questions on his position on transporting coal through the Gorge.
Currently, several different proposals to transport coal up the Columbia River to ship overseas by either rail or barge are under review in both Washington and Oregon.
Oregon Democratic senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have called for an area-wide Environmental Impact Study on the effects of coal shipments in the Gorge.
“I am not in support of this EIS which is being proposed to start at the point of mining to the point of departure,” Walden said. “I am in support of the full enforcement of the Clean Air Act, which regulates coal dust.”
The coal transportation issue has proven to be a hot one in Hood River, and many of the questioners did not back down in their attempts to pin the Representative down on the issue.
“I actually live here, too … I care deeply about the environment here. I worked on the Mt. Hood legislation and helped write it to help protect Mount Hood,” Walden said. “When it comes to coal I think we have to have a broader discussion.”
He then asked the audience how many did not want to see coal burned for electricity.
Numerous hands shot up with shouts of “Never!”
Walden then stated than 66 percent of Hood River’s power comes from the burning of coal, through power supplier PacifiCorp.
He then turned the discussion to the trade impacts of not exporting coal, saying the World Trade Organization would not allow a prohibition on coal exports because the prohibition would not meet a set of “very narrow exceptions.” No one in the audience pointed out that the opponents were not seeking a total ban on exportation but rather a ban on transport through the Gorge.
Walden said a decision to ban coal exports could trigger a trade war with China, with the Chinese having the discretion to choose goods on which they might retaliate.
He added that he did not see the need for a wider environmental impact study on coal shipments because sufficient safeguards were in place, citing regulations for fire suppression on barges to requirements for railroads to reimburse communities for any firefighting costs associated with track fires.
“We ship coal down the Mississippi by barge and there are not fires,” he said.
He said he would not have been supportive of shipping coal up the Columbia by rail or barge if he did not feel appropriate safeguards were in place.
“I do not want coal dust in the Gorge or the river at all,” he said.
Many cities have passed resolutions either against the shipping of coal outright or calling for the government to conduct a thorough environmental impact study of any plans to ship through their towns.
The issue came up again in Hood River Thursday night when Greg Smith of Greg Smith and Co. LLC, one of the backers of a project to ship coal by rail from Montana to Morrow and then by barge to St. Helens, visited the Port of Hood River to update the port commission on the plan.
“If the project is done correctly, not a single piece of coal would touch the ground in Oregon,” Smith said.
Smith came to the port merely to provide an update, and said he would not be asking for a letter of support on the project, as he had from the Port of Morrow.
“I understand that with the politics in Hood River that would be difficult,” Smith said.
Even though Smith was not seeking a letter of support, the port could decide to take a position. Commission president Jon Davies said the port will slate time on its next agenda to discuss whether or not it wants to take a position on the coal shipments.
Even though he disagreed with the coal opponents at the town hall, Walden did cede them one point on their efforts to block coal shipping through the Gorge.
“We may have a difference of opinion,” he said. “But you have been effective.”