In a few years, coal could be the No. 1 commodity traveling by river barge on the Columbia, supplanting wheat.

Ambre Energy wants to be first to export coal through the Northwest to Asia, starting as early as next year. Its Morrow Pacific project would use covered barges for 218 miles of the trip, running from Boardman, through the Columbia River Gorge and on to Port Westward, an industrial park between St. Helens and Astoria.

Two Portland manufacturers would build the covered barges. Two rural ports would get 25 to 30 permanent jobs each. Unlike four other Northwest export proposals, the gorge and the Portland-Vancouver area would be spared mile-plus, uncovered coal trains.

It's a proposal designed to blunt controversy. But it's still controversial.

Opponents warn that beefed-up barge traffic could crowd out other commodities, interfere with recreation and tribal fishing, and harm endangered salmon.

The Oregonian analyzed Ambre's environmental review, submitted to federal and state agencies and expected to be widely released late this month. When it comes to barge traffic, it's a mixed bag:

Ken Casavant, director of the Freight Policy Transportation Institute at Washington State University, found no problems in a quick review of Ambre's analysis; there's excess capacity "without a doubt," he says. Four-barge tows are a "really efficient way to move the product."

But the big bump in traffic would affect products, Casavant says, from wood to barley to wheat, with potential increased shipping costs.

Barges are the cheapest way to transport grain downriver for most of the Northwest. And grain exports are expected to increase in coming decades, capitalizing on huge investments downriver in new grain terminals and channel deepening.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure on every other commodity in that river," Casavant says. "We just don't know how much."

CONTRACTS SIGNED

Ambre, an Australian company, has already signed contracts to supply Powder River Basin coal from Montana and Wyoming to two South Korean utilities. Its tight timeline depends on fast permitting.

Barges, which Ambre says cost more than train transport, are a big part of that. Though Ambre is also proposing a train-fed terminal in Longview, Wash., it says its covered barge option is more environmentally friendly. Barges sidestep the "urban impacts" of rail, the environmental review says, "such as air and noise pollution and train-related delays."

The company has promised to use higher-cost, maneuverable tugs during high-water spring months to avoid Interstate 5 bridge lifts.

Also unlike the other projects, coal would be fully enclosed after it arrives by train at the Port of Morrow in Boardman. Instead of open coal piles, Ambre proposes storage barns with pollution scrubbers, sealed conveyer belts and enclosed loading equipment.

The barges would stop at Port Westward, a Port of St. Helens industrial park, directly loading coal onto ocean cargo ships.

"This is going to be the most environmentally protected movement of this commodity in the country today," says Gary Neal, Port of Morrow's general manager.

Profits could be big: Spot coal prices in Asia are far higher than in the United States. To win support, Ambre also plans to spread some of that wealth around.

It isn't asking for property tax breaks at the port, though it would probably qualify, Neal says. Its jobs would help make up for the planned closing of Portland General Electric's coal-fired Boardman power plant in 2020. Also, Ambre has pledged up to $1.6 million a year to schools, split between Morrow and Columbia counties.

Portland's Gunderson Marine and Vigor Industrial would get $75 million, with Gunderson building 15 covered barges. That's enough for 350 workers on the job round-the-clock for a year, says Mark Eitzen, general manager at Gunderson's Northwest Portland plant, the first time the marine wing has worked that much since the recession.

If Asian countries "are not going to get it from us, they're going to find somewhere else to get it," says Todd Lagers, a foreman and 15-year worker at Gunderson's Northwest Portland plant. "Why not keep the work here?"

SYSTEM PRIMED

Wheat farmers aren't sweating more barge traffic at this point, says Tyson Raymond, president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League."We're not going to stand in the way of rural economic activity because someday down the road there might be a problem," says Raymond, a wheat grower near Pendleton.

At full tilt, Ambre would add 1,257 barge tows a year, counting empty returns. That's three to four a day, on top of about seven commercial vessels passing through Bonneville now. "It's not like 5 o'clock traffic on the Terwilliger curves," Raymond says.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams and is evaluating Ambre's permit request, says it hasn't analyzed lock capacity. Ambre took a run at it in the environmental review, using corps data:

Factoring in delays and time in the locks, Bonneville would still have two-thirds of its lock capacity left once Ambre barge traffic reaches maximum, the company figures. John Day and The Dalles, with longer delays and lock-transit times, would have roughly one-third.

Ambre used mostly post-recession data. Plugging in higher barge traffic from 2003 to 2007, before the recession, still leaves at worst a quarter of The Dalles capacity unused.

Ambre says

it could ship coal without Corps permit

Ambre Energy says it could ship nearly 4 million tons of coal a year out of Oregon without getting a hotly contested permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In its environmental review for its Morrow Pacific project at Port of Morrow, Ambre says it has a "use option" to move coal through a nearby Cemex dock, used to ship sand and gravel.

"If a permit is not granted the applicant may utilize existing Cemex loader 'as is,'" the document says.

The Cemex dock could allow Ambre to ship coal to South Korean customers if its Morrow Pacific permit request drags on or is denied. It could still gain a competitive advantage as the first to export coal from the U.S. West Coast.

Ambre would have to win Oregon permits. But the state's environmental standards aren't as stringent as federal ones, leaving opponents fewer options for stalling or killing the project.

Morrow Pacific spokeswoman Liz Fuller says the Cemex approach "is really not the desired alternative."

Ambre couldn't grow to 8.8 million tons without a bigger Cemex conveyer, work that would require a corps permit, she says.

The dock is also farther from storage barns, increasing costs. And the conveyer system is covered but not enclosed, raising concerns about dust and spills.

Cemex USA spokeswoman Sara Engdahl said discussions are ongoing: "A final decision has not been reached."

More traffic means more money for maintenance and major repairs, courtesy of a 20-cent-a-gallon tax on tug diesel. The exports would also take advantage of huge investments in lock repairs and deepening of the shipping channel, says Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association: "The system is primed to take on additional cargo."

Cumulative impact

Don't look at the Morrow Pacific project in isolation, critics say.

Grain exports are expected to rise, tapping barges and trains. Companies could try to move more coal on the river if congested rail lines bottle up; the four train-fed Northwest projects would export more than 140 million tons a year.

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, notes Ambre had to withdraw its first bid for a permit in Longview after internal documents surfaced that showed it planned to export much more than publicly disclosed.

"There's a finite number of barges that can pass through the locks," he says. "Filling that space with coal barges is going in the wrong direction."

The loading zone at Port Westward is near Crims Island, VandenHeuvel notes, a new $2.2 million salmon nursery. Riverkeeper is part of an alliance that argues U.S. coal exports will help cement Asian use of coal for decades, increasing global warming.

Tribes, some neighborhoods near the river and recreational groups have issues, too.

River activities, including windsurfing and kiteboarding, have soared on the Columbia, says Greg Stiegel, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association.

Barge conflicts are low now, he says, and barges have the legal right of way in the shipping channel.

But Ambre's project "would bump the barge traffic up to the highest numbers since the '80s and early '90s," Stiegel says. "It's a huge deal for us."

For tribes, shipping coal through a river already beset by dams, habitat destruction and pollution raises many red flags. The new Port of Morrow dock could affect four tribal gill-net fishing sites guaranteed by treaty, says Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and more barges could raise dangers to fishermen working at night in rough weather. Bobby Begay, a commercial fisherman with the Yakama Nation, said the barge companies have been good about avoiding conflicts. But Begay, who lives in Celilo Village along the Columbia, isn't a fan of coal.

"We've fought for years to control pollutants from pulp mills and other sources," he says. "Now we want to introduce coal to trade for a handful of jobs, come on."

Ambre says there's little history of conflicts, and it has no intention of stepping up river-bound exports beyond levels in permit applications with the Corps of Engineers and Oregon.

Corps officials are evaluating Ambre's environmental review. Later this year, they expect to decide whether to issue their own assessment, which could take months, or proceed to a full-blown environmental impact statement, which could take years.

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