Firms pen deal to build coal barges

Company moving ahead with plan to ship coal down the Columbia River amid environmentalists' concerns



PENDLETON, Ore. — Covered barges that will transport coal between two Oregon ports for shipment to Asia are closer to reality after the Morrow Pacific coal export project signed letters of intent with two Portland manufacturing firms.

The two companies, Gunderson Marine and Vigor Industrial, are in line to construct the 20 barges at a cost of over $70 million for Ambre Energy, an Australia-based company with offices in the United States, but the project still requires financing and permits.

The project calls for Port of Morrow barges to take the coal down the Columbia River to the Port of St. Helens, where the coal will be loaded onto Asia-bound ocean liners, The East Oregonian reported. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are set to receive the coal.

The companies said in a statement that Gunderson Marine is expected to construct 15 of the barges for a bid of more than $55 million and Vigor Industrial is will build five barges at over $20 million.

“This was a business decision to make sure that both companies give us competitive bids,” said state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, who is also an Ambre Energy contractor of Gregory Smith and Co. Smith.

The Morrow Pacific project is considered the most likely of six proposals to get approval, but faces significant opposition from environmental groups who oppose the use of coal and worry that shipment to Asia will increase those countries’ reliance on fossil fuels.

Projects are proposed for at least six ports in Oregon and Washington to ship coal to power-hungry markets in Asia. Taken together, they could mean at least 100 million additional tons of coal shipped per year to Asia.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has called for federal officials to study the environmental impacts, saying he’s concerned about environmental effects — from coal dust and additional train traffic between mines and ports — and from burning more coal in developing countries.

In May, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the development of coal-export terminals in Washington state after raising concerns about increased train traffic and potential harm to health and the environment from transporting coal across the state.

The proposal calls for taking coal from Montana and Wyoming on railcars through Oregon for shipment to Asia. Smith and others with Ambre Energy interests insist no coal dust will leak from the covered railcars, mitigating any environmental impact in Oregon.