Last night, the state Department of Environmental Quality held a standing-room-only information meeting ("We want to clarify that it's NOT a hearing," the state noted) on the proposed permit for a controversial coal export terminal on the Columbia River near the small eastern town of Boardman. Greeted by an authentic-looking Santa (real beard!) handing out bags of coal gathered from rail tracks along Washington side of the Columbia river, attendees quickly filled up North Portland's Ambridge Event Center's main hall by 5:30 p.m.

The majority of the 700-plus attendees were decked in red "Beyond Coal" t-shirts, marking their opposition to both the terminal and the overarching idea of Oregon supporting coal-powered energy. A few donned hats emblazoned with Morrow Pacific—the Ambre-owned company that will run the export terminal if it's approved—and blank expressions, trying their best to avoid the mass of feisty red shirts. And even fewer pinned Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) nametags to their blazers, fielding impassioned questions and comments from the public at the front of the room.

But by the first half hour of the four-hour-long meeting, consisting of both Q&A and comment periods, it seemed that most attendees had reached one frustrating conclusion: Little to nothing that the public is concerned about lies in the DEQ's jurisdiction.

Locally, many Portlanders are concerned about air pollution from proposed coal trains chugging through town. Oregonians who live closer to the proposed terminal site are worried about coal fires on barges that may haul coal, mercury pollution in the drinking water, and coal dust ruining nearby fruit farms. To all these issues, the DEQ panel produced the same response.

"I feel like a broken record," admitted Mark Fisher, DEQ senior permit writer. "But that area is beyond our scope. All we're talking about tonight is the terminal itself."

That's not what the audience wanted to hear. "You're the DEQ. You protect our environment. Are you not concerned at all?" asked an enraged member of the public, refusing to hand over the mic. "This is outrageous."

One of the few pro-coal attendees, Robert Crane, who's worked in construction and operations for over 40 years, said that the terminal's future could turn the state's construction economy around.

DEQ officials at bat
  • DEQ officials at bat

"This is huge for my industry, for my family, and for the jobless construction workers across the state," Crane said. "Morrow Pacific says they would create up to 1,000 permanent construction jobs. That's incredible." Of people protesting the facilities, Crane added, "At the end of the day, they're going to be jobless too. They're not paid to rally."

The opposition turnout was diverse: Doctors, religious figures, attorneys, union members, business owners, and concerned grandmothers were a few of the many locals who turned out. Many commenters forfeited their talking time near the end of the night to Brett VandenHeuvel, director of Columbia Riverkeeper.

"The reason I became an environmental lawyer was because of these kind of meetings," said VandenHuvel. "I would hear these representatives say that it's 'not in our jurisdiction' over and over again, like tonight, and I'd think, 'bullshit.'"

Columbia Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club have joined forces over the past year to fight the variety of coal export proposals popping up across the Northwest. Shortly after an early April rally in Salem calling on the legislature to halt coal exports, Governor Kitzhaber issued a letter to the federal government asking for a sweeping review of the program.

VandenHeuvel ended his testimony with an applause-grabbing statement: "It's Kafkaesque to be here tonight and not ask, 'What the hell is going on?'"