BOARDMAN -- Coal trains are nothing new to Morrow County, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River across from Benton County.
About 2.1 million tons of coal per year are delivered by rail to Portland General Electric's Boardman Power Plant. The plant is a valued employer in the rural county, providing 145 steady jobs that pay good wages and benefits, according to the Port of Morrow.
But with PGE planning to close the plant by 2020, the Port of Morrow sees a possible new set of coal trains in its future to replace some of the lost jobs.
Ambre Energy is proposing building the Coyote Island Terminal at the Port of Morrow in Boardman to transfer up to 8.8 million tons of coal per year from trains to temporary storage or to barges that would travel down the Columbia River. The coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana then would be shipped across the ocean to Asia.
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Environmental groups and tribes are opposed.
Oregon Rural Action of La Grande worries about the potential impacts of increased rail and river traffic on water and air quality. Tribes are concerned about tribal fishing areas and cultural sites.
But those in the rural areas along the Columbia River east of The Dalles generally support the project, said Gary Neal, general manager of the Port of Morrow.
The port is willing to lease two parcels totaling 41 acres in its industrial park on the Columbia River for the transload facility that would be the port's ninth terminal operation.
Building the transload facility would require a $70 million capital investment and provide 100 to 150 construction jobs. But the key benefit the port sees is the 25 to 30 permanent jobs the facility would offer.
"These are Hanford-type jobs," Neal said. They'd offer wages in the range of $30 per hour and benefits, he said.
With the transload facility potentially operating in August 2014 to initially store and transfer up to 3.85 million tons of coal a year, that's a start to replacing some of the Boardman Power Plant jobs, Neal said.
In addition, Ambre Energy has offered to make a payment of 10 cents per metric ton of coal that comes through its facility to the nonprofit Morrow Education Foundation, which enhances education programs throughout Morrow County. Initially, that would mean $300,000 to $350,000 per year for education programs.
A proposal to expand the project could have 8.8 million short, or nonmetric, tons of coal being stored or transferred at the facility in January 2017. That would quadruple coal train traffic to the port, according to Oregon Rural Action. But it also would mean up to $800,000 annually to help Morrow County schools.
The project proposal outlined in permit documents for Oregon calls for an enclosed railcar unloading station that trains would pull through on the existing Port of Morrow rail loop. Coal would be dropped there into an underground conveyor system.
One coal storage shed measuring 210 feet by 1,000 feet with dust suppression systems would be built initially, with two more possibly added within two years.
When the coal is ready for shipment it would be moved on enclosed conveyors to the barge loader, which would have a dock, a worker walkway, mooring structures, elevated conveyors and a cascading chute loader. The project calls for 15,000 square feet of new structures to be built over water, according to Army Corps of Engineers documents.
The coal would be loaded onto covered barges that will require a $100 million investment by the company, Neal said. The barges would carry the coal downriver to the Port Westward dock in Clatskanie, Ore., to be loaded onto ocean-going vessels.
"They've gone the extra mile to protect the environment," Neal said. Steps such as storing coal in buildings, enclosing conveyor systems and using covered barges will help protect air quality.
But many people likely will disagree with Neal at a series of state meetings planned this week in Oregon.
They start with an information meeting to discuss Department of Environmental Quality permit applications at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Port of Morrow River Front Conference Room, 2 Marine Drive, Boardman.
A meeting will be held in Clatskanie on Wednesday and in Portland on Thursday.
The Army Corps of Engineers also has held a public comment period related to permits for dock construction on the Columbia River for coal transfer. The project calls for 140 permanent pile foundations and 110 temporary pile foundations.
The Corps received more than 30,000 comments, many of them form letters linked to environmental groups.