Port of Camas-Washougal takes no stand on coal exports

One commissioner wants to define its role

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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The three-member board of the Port of Camas-Washougal came to no resolution Tuesday evening about the port's role in the widening debate about exports of U.S. coal to Asia from Oregon and Washington terminals.

However, Commissioner Mark Lampton made it clear that he saw little reason for the port to engage in a topic that he sees as outside the Port's mission, while Commissioner Bill Macrae-Smith said only that he is generally uninformed on the pros and cons of the export debate.

That left Commissioner Bill Ward, who had asked for the discussion, alone in expressing a desire for the Port commission to take some kind of stand in the debate. Ward said he doesn't want the port to necessarily oppose coal exports, but said it should raise concerns about traffic and other potential negative impacts on the port and the community. "I think we need to make our position very clear," Ward said.

Commissioners accepted public testimony and moved on to other topics without debating that idea among themselves. A few people, all local residents, commented on the issue, mostly raising concerns about the potential traffic impacts to Washougal if exports from proposed Washington and Oregon export terminals generate a high volume of coal-carrying trains through Washougal. But the speakers generally agreed that the port's role in the debate is limited at best.

Washougal City Councilman Paul Greenlee noted that a dozen municipalities between the Powder River coalfields of Montana and Wyoming and the proposed West Coast export terminals have passed resolutions raising concerns about train traffic and related issues. Greenlee said a high volume of train traffic through Washougal would "cut us in half," saying that's the reason the city council passed its own resolution asking to be engaged in reviews of coal-related issues.

A new overpass over rail tracks could help mitigate the rail traffic increase, he said, but costs could run up to $60 million and its unclear where any money would come from to pay for such a project.

Washougal resident Larry Keiser said the port should try to get "a seat at the table" so that it can perhaps get information about plans by railroads to run more coal through the city. Keister said he was concerned that traffic delays at railroad crossings would damage the city's ability to attract new businesses.

Richard Hamby, also of Washougal, said the port is not in a position to weigh in on trade issues with China or the impacts of coal on climate change. But he said the port's mission of promoting economic development and tourism could be affected by coal shipments through the city.

Commissioners said debate over coal exports is rapidly heating up across the state, but the future is unpredictable as experts speculate on the level of China's demand, costs, and environmental opposition. "Cities and counties from Montana to the Pacific Ocean will weigh in very heavily," Lampton said. "It's up to them, not us."

On Monday, the Vancouver City Council joined the debate when it agreed to develop a resolution outlining the city's concerns and requesting a role in Washington's environmental review process for coal export terminals. The cities of Camas, Washougal, Longview, Stevenson, Hood River and Seattle all have passed resolutions of concern about coal export and transportation issues.

The Clark County Board of Commissioners also sent a letter to the state on Monday asking to be a party to environmental review plans.