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Oregon Town Weighs a Future With an Old Energy Source: Coal

BOARDMAN, Ore. — A new link in the world’s future energy supply could soon be built here on the Columbia River, and it would have nothing to do with the vast acres of wind turbines or the mammoth hydroelectric dams that give this region’s power sources one of the cleanest carbon footprints in the nation.

Instead, Boardman is pursuing one of the oldest and dirtiest of fossil fuels: coal. The question is not whether to use it to produce new energy but whether to make what some say would be tainted new profits.

Even as coal-fired power plants are being phased out in Oregon and Washington, Boardman, an agribusiness outpost across the river from vineyards owned by the Columbia Crest winery and where the Department of Energy recently awarded $25 million to an innovative biofuel producer, is among at least half a dozen ports in the region weighing whether to ship millions of tons of coal to Asia from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.

If all of the projects were built, as much as 150 million tons of coal per year could be exported from the Northwest, nearly 50 percent more than the nation’s entire coal export output last year.

“There’s no doubt the nation’s moving in a direction of renewable energy,” said Greg Smith, who runs an economic development firm near here that has been working for Ambre Energy, the Australian-owned coal company behind the Boardman project and one in Washington. “But until the world fully develops those alternatives we still have to have economic development.”

Coal companies have been seeking port access in the region for well over a year, and they have had many setbacks. They were rejected outright by the Port of Tacoma, and they have met strong resistance in the Washington cities of Longview and Bellingham.

But with the appetite for coal still strong in Asia, and with the Powder River Basin holding far more coal than it can sell domestically, companies have continued to seek outlets and increasingly expanded their list of potential sites into less populated and more conservative areas, promising jobs and tax revenue.

They have been welcomed in Boardman, whose port — formally called the Port of Morrow — is just one piece of a rare combination of transportation assets for a place so small. Highways, a main freight rail line and a major waterway converge here as they do in Portland and Seattle. Yet the city’s remote location also means it has little congestion, and little of the opposition that has risen up in other areas.

“The more business the better, as far as I’m concerned,” said Leroy Quimby, the production manager for Oregon Hay Products, a federally approved hay fumigation warehouse that would be just a few hundred feet from the coal facility proposed here. “And I don’t think there will be any environmental impact anyway.”

Conservationists disagree. They say exporting coal will simply export greenhouse gases while also threatening air quality in the Northwest, particularly in places near rail lines. They have recently broadened their appeal, arguing that the federal government should review the different proposals as a whole for their potential environmental impact, in part because they would drastically increase coal-car rail traffic through a range of pristine areas, including bird refuges and habitat for endangered salmon.

Jan Hasselman, a lawyer in Seattle for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, said, “For us, the real question for the region is not do we or don’t we build in Boardman, but whether we become the coal exporting hub of North America.”

The government is also asking questions; at least four of the projects, including the one here in Boardman, would require permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“All of these projects — and others like them — would have several similar impacts,” Kate Kelly, the director of the Office of Ecosystems, Tribal and Public Affairs for the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle, wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers this month. “Consider, for example, the cumulative impacts to human health and the environment from increases in greenhouse gas emissions, rail traffic, mining activity on public lands and the transport of ozone, particulate matter, and mercury from Asia to the United States.” The latter refers to pollution from coal-fired plants in Asia potentially reaching the West Coast.

The Boardman proposal is considerably smaller than those in Longview and Bellingham, and its supporters say it would include unique environmental precautions. Open coal cars would be sprayed with a dust suppressant before leaving the Powder River Basin. Once in Boardman, trains would be offloaded in an enclosed area that is ventilated by filtered vacuums. The coal would be stored in warehouses, then transported on enclosed conveyor belts to covered barges on the river. Many miles west, closer to the mouth of the Columbia, it would be transported again on a closed conveyor belt to a larger oceangoing ship.