Illustration by Ryan Bubnis

LAST THURSDAY, December 6, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) held what it guessed to be the largest public meeting in the office's history. From enraged seventysomethings to blushing fifth-graders, the 700-plus attendees packed into a Portland conference hall came from a wide range of backgrounds and social pockets to discuss one highly controversial issue: exporting coal through Oregon and Washington ports.

In 2011, coal energy giant Ambre Energy proposed a project—under the banner of smaller company Morrow Pacific—that would haul Midwest coal to at least two export terminals via barges on the Columbia River and/or trains that would slice through Portland. Ships would then deliver that coal to Asia. Ever since, folks from across the Northwest have been sharing strong views—concerns over air and water pollution on one side of the debate, promises of jobs on the other.

But in the midst of the tumultuous conversation, clear answers to seemingly simple questions have been trampled by fine print and finger-pointing. While many of these answers remain blurry, others could use a bit more focus. So here we go!


What's been decided?

Nothing, really. That's what makes the topic so hard to hash out. So far, Morrow Pacific has submitted its proposals for two Oregon export terminals (at Boardman's Port of Morrow and Columbia City's Port of St. Helens) to both the Oregon Department of State Lands and DEQ. The Army Corps of Engineers is also reviewing permits for train-fed terminals in both Washington and Oregon. All proposals are still in the public comment stage. DEQ won't have its first permit hearing until at least next year.


Who's against it and why?

The Portland and Milwaukie City Councils, Metro, a handful of Northwest tribes, Multnomah County, Governor John Kitzhaber, and a variety of other local agencies have spoken out against coal exports.

"We have so much to lose if we let our community's health slide backward because we didn't ask the right questions or looked the other way," Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen said at a press conference in September.

Locally, many Portlanders are concerned about air pollution from proposed coal trains chugging through town. Oregonians closer to the proposed terminals are also worried about fires on barges hauling coal, mercury pollution in drinking water, and coal dust ruining nearby farmland. Currently, the Multnomah County Health Department is leading a review of potential health hazards from coal trains.

On the larger scale, many people see Oregon's promotion of coal exports as aiding and abetting global warming. "The price of business as usual is too great," said an older woman sporting a bright red "Beyond Coal" shirt at last week's meeting. "We must stop this encouragement of dirty energy before it's too late."


Who's for it and why?

One of the few pro-coal attendees at last week's meeting, Robert Crane, has worked in construction for more than 40 years. Crane said exports could turn the state's construction economy around.

"This is huge for my industry, for my family, and for the jobless construction workers across the state," Crane said.

 Morrow Pacific promises 1,000 permanent operations jobs and 2,100 temporary construction jobs at its two proposed terminals as early as 2014. Additionally, the company says it will pay hundreds of thousands in property taxes, as well as hefty port fees.

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."


Who gets to decide?

Despite the demands from local leaders and the public, the fate of coal is not in their hands. If the slew of permits under consideration by multiple state agencies all pass, then the project's good to go. Aside from one potential end-around: federal intervention.

If the federal government calls for a sweeping review of the plan—which many local agencies and Kitzhaber are requesting—and if the feds find it flawed, then the show's over. But Eric Nigg, DEQ's water quality manager, said the feds have shown no signs (yet) that they'll step in.


What's the next step?

Patience. It'll be a slow road to an agreement. After DEQ's hearing sometime next year, it'll be hard to say exactly when the other permits and signatures would come into play.


Why is this project so damn frustrating?

Sure, massive projects at the mercy of a bureaucratic process usually come with a fair share of griping. But this project seems to come with an extra heap of fist-shaking baggage—much of it driven by the overlapping, uncertain, and downright confusing set of players involved.

From coal-mine regulations in Wyoming to local counties' restrictions, everyone's got a finger in the pie. For this project to see daylight, all of these interests must line up. Last Thursday's four-hour meeting illustrated the public's frustration with this disconnect. After each specific question—ranging from salmon health to fruit tree pollution—the DEQ panel produced a similar response.

"I feel like a broken record," admitted Mark Fisher, DEQ senior permit writer. "But that area is beyond our scope."

The permit up for discussion at that meeting dealt solely with the plans for a coal terminal—and not the system that would take the coal there. This scattered regulation has left many advocates worried about clashing environmental standards between agencies, leaving a bigger mess than what they started with.

"The reason I became an environmental lawyer was because of these kind of meetings," said Brett VandenHeuvel, director of Columbia Riverkeeper. "I would hear representatives say, over and over again, like tonight, that it's 'not in our jurisdiction.' And I'd think, 'Bullshit.' It's Kafkaesque to be here tonight and not ask, 'What the hell is going on?'"