Pacific coal port moves forward — sort of - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Pacific coal port moves forward — sort of

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JIM ROSS / The State Journal JIM ROSS / The State Journal

What had been plans for as many as six new docks to move coal from the Powder River Basin to Asia have been whittled down to three, and now one of those is close to getting its permits.

But the fight to stop the docks is not finished.

Coal is such a part of the background in Appalachia that its presence is taken for granted. Piles of coal sit out in the open. Rail cars and coal barges haul coal with no covers. Trucks hauling coal must cover their loads, but other than that, the sight of coal does not bother most people in the Mountain State.

Even the West Virginia State Capitol faces a river and a railroad that moves coal, and the rear entrance is near another coal-hauling railroad. And mines and companies that service mines are not far from where lawmakers work.

But the tension continues in the states of Washington and Oregon, where the jobs vs. environment battle continues. Demand from Asia promises jobs in those states for coal transport, but some groups don't want the trains or the possibility of coal dust on their roads, in their water or in their communities.

Earlier this month, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued three permits for Ambre Energy to build what is known as the Morrow Pacific project. Coal would be hauled by rail from Wyoming and Montana to Morrow, Ore., on the Columbia River in eastern Oregon. There the coal would be put in barges and taken to an ocean dock to be built at Boardman.

If all were to go as planned, no one would see the coal.

"We're going to cover our barges because we want to make sure we're mitigating coal dust and avoid any spillage into the river," said Liz Fuller, spokeswoman for Ambre Energy.

The rail-to-barge transfer would be covered, as would the barges and the barge-to-ship facility on the Pacific coast.

The three permits moved the Pacific Morrow project closer to construction, but the Oregon DEQ did something Ambre Energy did not expect. It said it would require the project to seek what is known as a Section 401 water quality permit that the project's opponents have wanted.

The Section 401 was a surprise because for two years the DEQ said it would not ask for one, Fuller said. 

"We are evaluating the request. We do disagree with the requirement on the 401 certification."

Section 401 certification applies to water quality in wetlands. Ambre Energy expected the Oregon DEQ to go for a Section 404 certification, Fuller said.

According to the EPA website, Section 404 applies to the discharge of dredged or fill material into the waters of the United States. Section 401 allows states to "address associated chemical, physical and biological impacts such as low dissolved oxygen levels, turbidity, inundation of habitat, stream volumes and fluctuations, filling of habitat, impacts on fish migration, and loss of aquatic species as a result of habitat alterations."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it expects to issue its decision on a permit for the project sometime this spring. Because the Corps is evaluating the permit application based on Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the DEQ said it would not pursue a Section 401 permit, Fuller said.