Both Sides of Coal Project Issue Make Their Case

DEQ Hearing
George Anderson of Hermiston spoke Tuesday in support of the Morrow Pacific Project during a DEQ hearing in Hermiston.

One-hundred and fifty people signed up to speak in Hermiston at Tuesday’s hearing before the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on a coal export project proposed for Boardman.

And while not all of the 150 people actually showed up, the hearing, which began at 8 a.m. and wrapped up at 8 p.m., drew dozens and dozens of people both in support and opposition of the project. The majority of the supporters were from the local area while the majority of the opposition was from outside the area.

The Morrow Pacific Project is seeking the approval of permits for air and water quality as well as storm water runoff during the construction and operation of the project. If the permits are approved, a coal transfer terminal would be built at the Port of Morrow that would allow trains from Montana and Wyoming to transfer coal shipments to barges. Those barges would then travel down the Columbia River and eventually to Asia. It’s estimated that as much as 8.8 million tons of coal could be moved through the terminal.

Opponents of the project say it would have a detrimental impact on air and water quality. Supporters say the project would provide thousands of family-wage jobs for the region. Tuesday’s hearing in Hermiston included plenty from both sides of the argument.

Phillip Scheuers of Hermiston spoke in support of the Morrow Pacific Project. He said he believed the project is “moving forward in a responsible way.” He said Oregon has always been an environmentally conscious state and believes the project will be carried out without any harmful impacts to the environment.

“When we’re looking at businesses moving into our state and doing it the Oregon way, those are the people we need to support,” Scheuers said.

Former Heppner Mayor Bob Jepsen said coal has been coming into Morrow County for years without any damage to the air or water quality, adding that he hasn’t seen anything about the project that would worry him this time around.

Jepsen, along with other supporters of the project, touted the economic benefits of the Morrow Pacific Project. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 jobs will be created during the construction phase and another 1,600 permanent jobs during operation.

Karen Wolfe of Heppner said those jobs would help the local economy absorb the loss of jobs that is expected when the PGE coal-fired plant closes down.

“This will help offset those losses,” she said. “The project has met the federal and state requirements and there is no reason to believe this will cause environmental harm.”

Opponents of the project, however, disagree. Alexandra Amonette of the Tri-Cities said the DEQ has a “huge responsibility” to look at the entirety of the project’s environmental impacts.

“Studies have found an increase in the morbidity rate in school children exposed to coal dust,” she said. “Coal is the single biggest contributor to Co2 emissions. The atmosphere belongs to all of us.” La Grande resident William Whitaker, a member of Oregon Rural Action, said he was speaking on behalf of the all the grandchildren in the world.

“We have one Columbia River, one Columbia Gorge, one state of Oregon and we live on one planet,” he said. “You need to look at the total impact of the project and the impact it will have on the air we breathe and the water we depend on.”

Martha Stevenson of White Salmon, Wash., said she is worried about the health impacts the project could have.

“Coal is toxic,” she said. “It’s already been found along the railroad tracks and in the Columbia River. I can only shutter to imagine another 20 to 30 trains transporting coal through the Columbia Basin.”

Heppner Mayor Joe Perry said the economic impact of the project will not only provide jobs for the area, but provide much-needed tax dollars for local schools. He also said the project has the full support of everyone he’s talked to in Morrow County.

“I find it interesting that people locally support the project and the people who are not from this area are the ones against it,” he said.

Hermiston attorney George Anderson, who also sits on the Hermiston City Council, said the country and the state have been built on natural resources, but many of those resources have been taken away from us.

“Here’s an opportunity with natural resources to provide jobs,” he said. “Now, I know the Department of Environmental Quality is not a job creation entity, but at the same time it needs to think about people and people who live here and people who want jobs.”

Longtime Umatilla County resident William Burnett, a supporter of the project, said the issue should not be jobs vs. the environment. A former member of the Sierra Club, Burnett said there has to be some compromise.

“We have to compromise and use common sense,” he said Tuesday. “Let’s do what’s right for everybody.”

The public comment period for the Morrow Pacific Project is open until Aug. 12. There is no timeline yet as to when the DEQ will make a decision on the permits.