PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has brought its review of a proposed coal export terminal to an immediate halt, a blow to the Australian company that's trying to get coal from the Northern Rockies to a hungry Asian market.
Last month, Oregon state regulators rejected a proposed terminal on the Columbia River because it potentially would interfere with tribal fishing rights.
On Monday, the Corps announced it had put its review on hold while a judge considers an appeal of the state's decision.
"We could do (the review) and make a yes-or-no determination," said Corps spokesman Scott Clemans. "But given the lack of clarity right now as to whether the required state authorization is going to happen, and given the amount of time and energy we still need to devote to this project, it doesn't make sense to devote resources to a project that may not happen."
An Australian company, Ambre Energy, proposed to have coal shipped by rail from Wyoming and Montana to the terminal at Boardman in northeast Oregon. There the coal would be loaded onto barges headed for another terminal nearer the mouth of the river and then exported.
Both Ambre Energy and the Port of Morrow filed appeals of the state Lands Department decision. They will be heard by an administrative law judge.
The company was hopeful about its prospects.
"Our focus is on the (Lands Department) appeal process where we will prove as we have before that the project meets Oregon's environmental standards," said John Thomas of the company's legal division in a statement Monday afternoon.
The company also says the Lands Department's rejection is the first ever encountered by the Corps.
Environmentalists praised the decision as one that puts another obstacle in front of the proposal, which has drawn their ire and that of the tribes who argue the terminal would impede their fishing rights.
"It's great news," said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. "The coal terminal is a huge threat to our river."
The Corps' decision does not reflect their thinking either way on the terminal's future, Clemans said, but is merely a reflection of the state Land Department's rejection of the proposal in August.
Still, the project that once carried significant momentum and promised a host of economic benefits to the state and region is on shakier footing.
The project was expected to generate several hundred jobs during construction at the Port of Morrow and add about 30 port workers permanently. Ambre said it would pay $850,000 in annual fees to each of the two ports while paying property taxes in Morrow and Columbia counties.
In denying their application, the Lands Department said Ambre Energy presented some possible options to mitigate the effect on fishing, but failed to commit to any specific action. It also said Ambre hadn't properly investigated alternatives that would avoid construction of a new dock.
Environmental and tribal groups have lined up to oppose the project, and Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber opposes the terminal.
Businesses in the region complain that the opposition is coming from the populous Portland area, while the eastern half of the state is left to wither under environmental regulations they would prefer to do without.
An Associated Press analysis of energy consumption data earlier this year showed that as the U.S. continues to cut emissions by, among other things, closing coal plants, the nation is sending more of its coal abroad.
Over the past five years, as the U.S. has cut coal consumption by 195 million tons, about 20 percent of that coal has been shipped overseas.
For the Northwest, proposed coal terminals would export more than 100 million tons of coal to Asia per year, far exceeding the total consumption for all plants that feed coal-fired power to the region, including Oregon, and doubling U.S. exports.
Associated Press Environmental Writer Dina Cappiello contributed to this report.
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