A review board is recommending that the state of Oregon spend $4 million to help expand a controversial crude oil and coal export dock at the Port of St. Helens near Clatskanie, Oregon.
The ConnectOregon program leverages state lottery dollars to pay for transportation projects. This year, the program has $43 million in grants to distribute. Projects in line for that funding go through a series of reviews by committees that rank their priority. On Wednesday, a final review committee voted on a list of projects that it will recommend to the Oregon Transportation Board for funding.
Two dock improvement projects at the Port of St. Helens made the final cut -– despite objections from opponents of coal exports and crude-by-rail projects.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, said it's "outrageous" that coal and oil companies could get public money for projects that many Oregonians oppose.
"Building coal export infrastructure with public money is unacceptable," he wrote in a letter to the review committee. "Thousands of Oregonians have spoken out against coal exports, and so has Governor Kitzhaber ... Similarly, it is inappropriate to spend public money on crude oil shipping infrastructure before Oregonians have had any formal opportunity to express their concerns about dangerous crude-by-rail projects and the risk of massive crude oil spills in the Columbia River."
Port of St. Helens Director Patrick Trapp said the projects would expand the dock's capacity, and that will benefit not just the current tenants but the public port and its future tenants.
"This allows us to turn what we consider a single berth dock into two berths," Trapp said. "Port-owned assets in fact are used to attract a multitude of customers and this is investment in that infrastructure."
The projects would also allow the dock to accommodate deep-draft Panamax tanker ships. Thus far, the dock has only been receiving barges up to 600 feet long. Trapp said if Global Partners can receive bigger ships, it will speed up their crude-oil operation and leave the dock open for "additional opportunity."
"It not only allows them the ability to meet the desired capability but allows the port to entertain other options, too," he said.
The port and the two companies backing those projects have pledged matching money to help fund the improvements.
The Oregon Transportation Commission will hold a public hearing on the recommended projects July 17 before voting on them in August.
Chris Cummings, transportation planner for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said the Commission can make changes to the recommended list of projects, but it hasn't exercised that power in the past.