Port commission president: Coal doesn’t rev our engine

By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune 

Coal is not among the ventures the Port of Lewiston is pursuing as it seeks business for its expanded container dock.

The port has had three or four inquiries about coal in the past 31/2 years, with the most recent arriving sometime in the fall. But Port Commission President Mary Hasenoehrl said the port has never actively sought coal customers.

“The Port of Lewiston is not currently working with anyone regarding coal shipments,” said Port Manager David Doeringsfeld.

Any port along the Snake and Columbia river system has likely handled requests similar to those put to the Port of Lewiston, Doeringsfeld said. Barging coal on the system is an option since coal is being mined in Wyoming and Montana and shipped overseas.

The comments from Hasenoehrl and Doeringsfeld followed a records request by the Lewiston Tribune seeking any documents the port had involving coal from Jan. 1 to July 23.

The port provided an economic impact study about a Port of Morrow coal facility along the Columbia River in Boardman, Ore., the Port of Morrow’s lease option for the operation, a newspaper article about increasing traffic on the Lower Columbia River and a letter from a megaload opponent.

The port held back a business record submitted by a third party that Doeringsfeld said falls within the exemptions permitted by Idaho code.

The document didn’t involve a potential coal deal, Hasenoehrl said.

“I personally would have to take a long hard look at (coal). There’s a lot of downsides to that,” she said.

Dried peas, lentils and garbanzo beans are among the products the port ships in containers and Hasenoehrl said massive coal shipments could interfere with that.

“I have always tried to be an advocate for our agricultural industry in the valley,” she said. “I want to be sure we’re always able to fulfill that mission.”

The lease and the economic impact study are items Doeringsfeld said he requested. The Port of Morrow has an option to lease property to the Coyote Island Terminal. The agreement has a potential value of close to $1 million a year after the first portion of the terminal is ready, said Port of Morrow Manager Gary Neal.

It’s expected to take about a year for the terminal to be constructed and no ground-breaking date is set, Neal said. It will handle 3.5 million metric tons of coal a year in its first phase and 8 million metric tons annually when it reaches full capacity.

The coal will be shipped from Wyoming and Montana on Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks to Spokane, where it will go to Union Pacific lines for the trip to Boardman. At Boardman, it will be loaded onto barges that will go to the Portland, Ore., area where the fuel will be transferred to ocean-going vessels.

“I’m curious to see what bulk pricing is for various commodities shipped on the river system,” Doeringsfeld said when asked about his interest in what was happening at the Port of Morrow.

The Tribune raised the question about coal at a time when the port’s direction is not clear. The port has more than doubled its budget for administrative travel this year to $21,500 so it can market its container dock to suppliers of the North Dakota oil fields.

Many of the materials and equipment used in the oil fields are manufactured in Asia and shipped through the Panama Canal and then Houston. Traveling through the ports of Vancouver, Wash., and Lewiston would save thousands of travel miles.

The Port of Lewiston’s container dock was extended to 270 feet in 2013 – using $2.8 million in port and federal dollars – but has not experienced a significant increase in business since completion of the project. Annual container volume at the port has fallen from a high of 17,611 in 1997 to 4,439 last year.

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.