Court battle over coal exports intensifies
The Port of Coos Bay appeals a ruling that sharply cuts fees the Sierra Club must pay for documents
BY DIANE DIETZ, The Register-Guard

The Port of Coos Bay is launching a court battle against a nonprofit group that wants details of the port’s plans for a terminal to export coal delivered via rail by trains that would snake through the Columbia Gorge and Willamette Valley before switching tracks at Eugene onto the Coos Bay Rail Link.

The port earlier this month filed an appeal in Coos County Circuit Court to overturn an order by Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier that the port sharply cut the nearly $20,000 in fees the port said the Sierra Club needs to pay before the port will provide any documents.

The port had told the Sierra Club it would have to pay $16,700 so the port could hire a private attorney to review thousands of pages of port documents to see if they are exempt from disclosure under Oregon public records law. The port has said it thinks disclosure exemptions may apply to the records, but it has not elaborated.

Frasier ruled in February that the $20,000 fee was unreasonable compared with the actual cost of producing the documents. When a government charges such a high fee for review and documents, Frasier wrote, the public right to open government is “hindered, chilled or even denied.”

Frasier said a $3,300 fee for compiling and copying might pass legal muster, but that the port would need to absorb the $16,700 cost of legal review.

“If the government agency believes that a record is exempt from disclsoure, the cost of making the legal determination that a record is exempt should not be placed on the public requesting access to the record,” Frasier wrote.

The California-based Sierra Club has been asking for the documents since June so it can evaluate the environmental effects of the terminal project at Coos Bay — and globally when U.S. coal is shipped to China and burned in coal-fired electricity generating plants.

The Sierra Club has 600,000 members nationally, including 16,000 in Oregon. One of the group’s campaigns is Beyond Coal, which aims to move the global economy toward clean energy.

The port has said it is negotiating with an unnamed group that is considering building a coal-shipping terminal at the port. But the port has declined to release the name of the group or many other details about the proposed terminal.

In February, the Eugene-based nonprofit group Beyond Toxics submitted its own public records request to the port, asking for all records related to the railroad transport of coal, including through west Eugene.

Beyond Toxics executive director Lisa Arkin said her group’s concerns are the diesel particulate from the additional trains that would rumble through west Eugene and the coal dust that spreads along the tracks from open-top coal-carrying rail cars.

Beyond Toxics’ 500 members “have a strong interest in ensuring that coal export proposals in Oregon do not pose risks to public health,” Arkin said.

The port, in a Feb. 14 letter, said it would charge Beyond Toxics $22,000 for the 2,750 documents related to shipping and exporting coal. The largest part of the cost would be for the port to hire a private attorney to look at the documents and determine if they could be withheld under Oregon public records law.

The port “is trying to circumvent the intent of the public records access laws,” Arkin said. “Any Oregonian should be able to request — and get — those records, even a mom with a kid with asthma living along the railroad tracks.”