Oregon regulators plan to decide Monday whether to deny a permit for a coal export dock in Boardman to preserve tribal fishing on the Columbia River.
The Morrow Pacific coal export project needs a permit from the Oregon Department of State Lands to build a dock for coal barges. The project would ship nearly 9 million tons of coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia. It would transfer coal shipments from trains to barges in Boardman, and load the coal onto ships at a dock in Clatskanie, Oregon.
Members of the Yakama and Umatilla tribes have told the state they fish at the proposed dock site, and they've asked the state to deny the permit to ensure their treaty fishing rights are upheld.
Morrow Pacific project backer Ambre Energy has disputed tribal claims and argued that the dock won't interfere with tribal fisheries.
Among other criteria, state rules say the permit can be issued as long as it "would not unreasonably interfere with the paramount policy of this state to preserve the use of its waters for navigation, fishing and public recreation."
Julie Curtis, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of State Lands, said her agency is weighing information from the company and the tribes, as well as more than 20,000 public comments.
"When tribes bring an issue like this to us, we certainly take it very seriously and look at it," she said. "We've had to look at many, many details, so it's certainly been very time consuming."
Members of the Yakima Nation protested the project by fishing at the proposed dock site in May. A week later, the state delayed the decision from a May 31 deadline set by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to Aug 18.
The state asked the tribes for additional information and gave Ambre Energy time to respond to the information submitted by the tribes.
In letters submitted since May, several Columbia River tribes have weighed in against the project, including Nez Perce and Warm Springs, as well as the Yakama and Umatilla.
Paul Lumley, executive director for a coalition of all four tribes called the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, told the state in a letter dated June 27 that the proposed dock and related coal export facilities "would destroy treaty fishing sites." Furthermore, he argued, the barge traffic generated by the project would impact tribal fishers elsewhere on the river.
"Current levels of barging activity on the Columbia River already conflict with tribal fishery operations," Lumley wrote. "Increased barging will exacerbate those conflicts, including lost fishing gear and reduced tribal catch. The personal safety of tribal fishers will be compromised."
In defense of his project, Clark Moseley, president and CEO of the Morrow Pacific Project, sent a 12-page letter to the state arguing that the proposed dock "will occupy a miniscule footprint," and "the location of the dock is considered poor fish habitat and is not used by local fishers, tribal, sport, or otherwise."
In his letter, Moeseley argued that the department of state lands doesn't have jurisdiction over the land in question because it's owned by the Port of Morrow, and he presented several legal arguments supporting that position.
"Under its own rules, DSL is not authorized to analyze fishing on lands not owned by the state," he wrote.
He also pointed to other cases where he said the state approved permits for in-water activity despite impacts to fishing.