Abrams followed letter of the law in coal export decision

<p>Mary Abrams, Director, Department of State Lands</p>

Before discussing the contentious permit decision that came to symbolize a high-profile struggle between Eastern Oregon’s environment and economy, Mary Abrams just wanted to hear about the local wheat harvest.

A Heppner native, Abrams knows how important agriculture is to the community where she was raised. Now the director of Oregon’s Department of State Lands, her mind is with the farmers back home.

“It was probably the best place ever to grow up,” Abrams said during an interview from her Salem office. “I learned a lot there, particularly how you give back to your community and how you help your neighbors out.”

However, Abrams said she’s already heard from several people disappointed in her department’s ruling to deny a key permit for the Coyote Island coal export terminal in nearby Boardman, part of the Morrow Pacific project proposed by Australia-based developer Ambre Energy.

Without the permit in hand, Morrow Pacific crews can’t break ground on a new dock in the Columbia River at the Port of Morrow where coal would be shipped from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. From there, Ambre intended to barge the coal to another port downriver near Clatskanie where it would be loaded onto ocean-going vessels for export to Asia.

The decision is a major setback and possible deal-killer for the $242 million project. Supporters lament the loss of jobs that would be created by the investment, while environmentalists cheered the move as a stand against dirty coal contributing to climate change.

But Abrams said the final announcement, handed down Aug. 18, was not a statement on economic development or coal. Rather, it was an objective take on a single permit application based on its impact to waters of the state.

“It’s happened to have an effect on the part of Oregon I’m very fond of,” Abrams said. “But at the end of the day, we operate within the context of the laws that have been passed by the representatives of the state.”

Abrams lived the first year of her life in Fossil, where her father, Robert B. Abrams, was the district attorney of Wheeler County. He soon moved into private practice with P.W. Mahoney in Heppner, where Mary lived the rest of her childhood and later graduated from high school in 1973.

“I understand how the rural part of the state functions, what they care about and what their values are,” she said. “I hope it allows me to bring a balance to discussions about policies and what decisions need to happen at the state level.’

Abrams was appointed State Lands director in 2012, following six-plus years in the U.S. Peace Corps as a country director in Africa. Prior to heading overseas, she earned her bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of Arizona and holds a doctorate in soil science from the University of California at Davis. She also worked several years in La Grande as a water quality specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The Department of State Lands is the administrative arm of the State Land Board, which consists of Gov. John Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown and Treasurer Ted Wheeler. Abrams leads the technical work to make decisions about state-owned land and resources.

The Morrow Pacific review process, which included eight deadline extensions and more than 20,000 comments, highlighted one of the most publicly scrutinized permits to come out of the department, Abrams said.

“It was probably a lot more attention than we prefer,” Abrams said. “I try my best to get my work done behind the scenes.”

Of course, Abrams knew her decision would affect her neighbors close to home. Like her father the attorney, she could only focus on the laws that apply.

“I’m not paid to have my own opinions,” she said. “I’m paid to do the technical work. But those are definitely the people I’ve been thinking about.”

The Morrow Pacific project, developed in part by fellow Heppner businessman and Republican State Rep. Greg Smith, promised to secure 25-30 family-wage jobs at the Port of Morrow and invest $800,000 per year in local schools when the terminal began operating at full capacity.

“Folks are obviously disappointed. But it’s Heppner, and when you come from Heppner, you’re family,” Smith said. “Mary has a tough job. While I disagree with her decision, I respect her 100 percent.”

Apart from the environmental concerns, local tribes adamantly opposed the project, arguing it would interfere with a long-held and productive tribal fishing site. That ultimately weighed strongly in Abrams’ decision, she said.

The department also stated Ambre Energy did not adequately consider alternatives that would have less impact on the river, such as shipping the coal by rail directly to the Port of St. Helens.

Coming from the area herself, Abrams said she wasn’t necessarily more qualified to make the call. And, so long as she remained focused on the rules and regulations of the permit, it didn’t make it more difficult to come to what she felt was the right decision, either.

“It really isn’t dodging the question to say there are laws in the state that are laid out, and I’m charged with following those laws,” she said. “It’s unfortunate it has to be a hit to a group of people I care about. But I feel strongly that people count on me to follow the laws of the state.”

Ambre Energy has about a week left to appeal the decision, which would include a hearing before an administrative law judge. Spokeswoman Liz Fuller said the company continues to weigh its options, but an appeal “is a very strong possibility.”

Regardless of the fate of Morrow Pacific, Abrams said she is fully confident the community and port will continue to make strides.

“I just don’t believe this is the end of economic development in Morrow County and Umatilla County,” she said. “Because I believe in them.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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