SALEM, Ore. — Environmental groups continue to try to block the expansion of a Columbia River port, the latest in the ongoing debate over natural areas and oil and gas terminals in the state.
With a Wednesday appeal, Columbia Riverkeeper and another group asked state authorities not to allow the re-classification of 837 acres of farmland near the Port of St. Helens for industrial use, citing both the loss of farmland and the potential for the site to be used for handling crude oil or natural gas.
A port official acknowledged both would be allowed under the broad reclassification, but said commissioners aren’t planning either for the site.
The appeal comes during long-running conflicts between environmentalists and local governments and businesses seeking to take economic advantage of Oregon’s coast and rivers, generally centering around the types of ports where energy companies must build depots to transfer their products to ships.
A 2008 proposal to construct a natural gas terminal in Coos Bay was controversial and earlier proposals for coal facilities at the port of St. Helens garnered objections after emerging in 2012.
The current proposal would only re-classify land, not permit any particular new building – but environmentalists and the port disagree over the potential for it to lead to a gas or oil handling facility.
“Frankly our commissioners have no appetite for getting involved in that,” said Paula Miranda, the port’s deputy executive director. Officials sought the expansion because they need more space, not to allow for any particular use, Miranda said.
Miranda acknowledged oil and gas facilities would theoretically be allowed on the new land, but said the port’s elected commissioners had paid attention to negative community comments about the commodities.
Miranda also said any facility on the re-zoned land would go through its own process, including public comment.
“We don’t approve any lease without an actual public meeting,” Miranda said.
But Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, a spokesperson for Columbia Riverkeeper, expressed skepticism that the port would turn away such a development, and said officials’ endorsement of the 2012 coal projects was a sign they’d be open to more.
And Zimmer-Stucky pointed to a Portland Tribune report from 2012, in which Miranda was quoted explaining how port officials, at the time negotiating a proposal for a coal terminal at the site, could avoid the state’s public meetings law.
Along with broader risks that environmentalists say petroleum-based commodities carry, including spills and the likelihood that they will eventually contribute to global warming, Zimmer-Stucky said converting farmland to industry at the Columbia River site would be detrimental to the river’s estuary.
Miranda said the port was sensitive to environmental concerns, but also has a responsibility to make land available to companies that want to do the kind of business that requires access to sea shipping.
“We are one of very few deep water ports in Oregon,” Miranda said.
A previous version of this story misspelled Columbia Riverkeeper.