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Oregon Commission Again Says No To Funding Coal Export Dock

The Port of St. Helens applied for grants through the ConnectOregon program to expand this dock, which is used to ship crude oil and would also be used to export coal for the Morrow Pacific project.
The Port of St. Helens applied for grants through the ConnectOregon program to expand this dock, which is used to ship crude oil and would also be used to export coal for the Morrow Pacific project.

The Oregon Transportation Commission on Thursday voted 3-1 to deny a $2 million grant of state funds for dock improvements at Port Westward in Clatskanie, Oregon, a project tied to proposed coal exports.

It was the second time the commission voted down the controversial application, which the former chair of the commission claims she was fired for refusing to approve the first time.

Environmental groups had urged the commission to reject the application and lauded the vote.

“I think it was a huge victory that will put Oregon on a road map toward a more sustainable economy,” Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky of the Columbia Riverkeeper. “Using public funds to support coal is just not smart.”

The funds are part of a package of grants through the ConnectOregon program, which leverages state lottery dollars to pay for transportation projects. The Port of St. Helens application prompted debate over whether the state should subsidize transportation projects that benefit fossil fuel movement through the Northwest.

The improved dock would be used in the Morrow Pacific project, a proposal from Australian-based Ambre Energy to ship coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana through Oregon for export to Asia.

Thursday's decision is another blow to proposed coal exports in the region, along with an uncertain market and denials of key permits.

Port of St. Helens Executive Director Patrick Trapp said he was “disappointed, however not surprised” the application was again rejected. He said the port would continue to seek other funds for the dock improvements.

“The application was quite clear this was for non-exclusive use, for dock maintenance and repair for a variety of current and future cases,” Trapp said. “Certainly one of those could have benefited a controversial product, but apparently folks got wrapped up in just looking at that exclusively.”

The first rejection of the port’s ask for money to reconstruct a World War II-era dock came in August, when the first round of commission voting approved 36 other applications worth $42.3 million. The port dock was the only application rejected during that round of voting.

In January, when reconsideration of the project began, immediate former chair of the transportation commission Catherine Mater told The Oregonian that then-Gov. John Kitzhaber pressured her to approve the project, and that she was fired for refusing to do so.

“The real issue surrounding the story is not coal, it’s fraud: the submittal of fraudulent information to a public entity for the purpose of securing public funds,” Mater wrote in a February opinion piece published in the St. Helens Chronicle.

The port struggled to prove to the commission its project was shovel-ready. The initial application for the dock at Port Westward included a $3 million match from Ambre Energy that the company did not explicitly promise. Before the vote, Ambre was denied a permit from the Department of State Lands for another piece of the project. In the reconsidered application, the port put forth the money.

“I don’t believe any public funds in the state should be used for a coal project, but aside from that, I didn’t even have to go there because the application was just flawed.” Mater said Thursday. "And it was flawed to the point of fraudulent information being submitted by the port for the purpose of gaining access to public funds. I don't know how else to put that. That's exactly what happened."

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Tony Schick