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State denies key permit for proposed coal terminal

Critics hail decision as a ‘huge blow’ to Port of Morrow project

After more than two years of public review, analysis, and permit filings, delays, and extensions, the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL) announced on Monday that it had rejected a crucial permit needed for the construction of the Coyote Island coal export terminal proposed for the Port of Morrow.

Ambre Energy, an Australia-based energy company, had planned to ship approximately 8.8 million tons of coal annually from the port located in Boardman, about 90 minutes east of Hood River. The coal would arrive via rail from the Powder Basin region in Montana and Wyoming and be transferred to barges in Boardman that would then ship the coal down the Columbia, bound for Asian markets.

On Monday, however, DSL reported it had denied a removal-fill permit for the terminal, which Ambre Energy needed to construct a dock for the project, where a conveyor belt would take coal from rail cars and load it onto barges waiting on the Columbia River. DSL regulates filling and removing material from “waters of the state,” which include wetlands, rivers and streams, and the Coyote Island Terminal involves 572 cubic yards of permanent fill in the form of pilings in the Columbia River on submerged land owned by the Port of Morrow.

In a press release announcing the decision, DSL stated the permit was “not consistent with the protection, conservation and best use of the state’s water resources, and that the applicant did not provide sufficient analysis of alternatives that would avoid construction of a new dock and impacts on tribal fisheries.”

The project had gone through an exhaustive process for the removal-fill permit that first began in February 2012 and consisted of three public review periods and eight decision deadline extensions, according to DSL.

“As many people know, this permit application has taken hundreds of staff hours to review,” said Mary Abrams, DSL director. “From reading more than 20,000 public comments to carefully analyzing technical documents and plans, this application has been scrutinized for months. We believe our decision is the right one, considering our regulatory parameters laid out in Oregon law, and the wealth of information we have received from the applicant and the public.”

The decision was hailed by environmental and tribal groups that opposed the project over concerns it would adversely affect air and water quality as well as negatively impact tribal fishing sites.

Carlos Smith, chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a member of the Warm Springs Tribal Council, called the permit denial “the beginning of the end for this toxic threat,” referring to the coal terminal.

“This decision is one that we can all celebrate,” he stated in a press release. “It reaffirms the tribal treaty right to fish, is in the best interest of the Columbia Basin’s salmon populations, and our communities.”

Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, also lauded DSL’s decision.

“Friends of the Columbia Gorge applauds the DSL for protecting river recreation, fisheries, treaty rights and the climate by denying this application,” he said in a written statement. “The Columbia River Gorge is a national scenic treasure and should not be used as the nation’s coal chute to Asia. This decision is a huge victory for Gorge residents and their elected officials who have opposed this project and called for a coal-free future for the Columbia River.”

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, believed the permit denial would make the coal terminal difficult to build.

“We think it’s a huge blow to the project and a huge victory for the community that we won’t see coal barged down the Columbia,” he said Monday afternoon.

Riverkeeper was one of multiple environmental groups that submitted comments to DSL and pushed the state to reject the terminal. The group also rallied the public to submit comments and protest the project. He characterized one such protest in Hood River in March 2013 that was attended by well over 100 people as a “big turning event,” symbolically, in the fight.

Despite the jubilance — Riverkeeper will be having a celebration of the decision at The Pint Shack on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. — VandenHeuvel said the decision wasn’t unexpected.

“I wasn’t surprised by the decision, I think it was an appropriate decision,” he noted. “I think if you had asked me that two years ago, I think it may have been surprising then.”

The permit denial, however, can be appealed, which would include a hearing before a state administrative law judge. Liz Fuller, a spokesperson for Ambre Energy told The Oregonian on Monday that the decision was a “political” one and that the company was “evaluating our next steps and considering the full range of legal and permitting options.”

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