A proposed new coal terminal at Port Westward north of Clatskanie is forcing Rainier-area officials to examine whether they need to expand rail lines through the heart of town to accommodate hundreds of rail cars daily.
"It's a definite impact on our community. It's a touchy subject. We're not saying that we don't want job creation. We really hope that we can work to find a solution," Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole said Thursday.
Downtown Rainier could become clogged by slow-moving, mile-long trains bringing coal to the proposed Kinder Morgan coal terminal and corn to an ethanol plant at Port Westward. The Portland & Western Railroad short line runs parallel to Highway 30 through the middle of town and could be the focus of potential congestion.
Cole said that downtown business owners are worried that trains could block vehicles and disrupt their businesses, and he has had "preliminary" talks with Oregon Department of Transportation officials to discuss the potential problem. Cole said Rainier residents have known for years that the rail system is inadequate to support the area's industrial growth, adding that the looming coal terminal could spur some form of action from the state.
"Something needs to be done, and I don't know what the answer is," Cole said.
An Oregon Transportation official did not return a message Thursday.
On Tuesday, the Port of St. Helens announced that two energy companies were planning to build coal export terminals at Port Westward, and one proposal could bring hundreds of additional rail cars through the area daily.
Kinder Morgan, a Houston-based energy conglomerate, is hoping to build a terminal to export 15 million tons of coal annually, which would likely require three to six mile-long trains every day to meet capacity. Company officials said they would provide more details at a Port of St. Helens meeting next Wednesday.
The Kinder Morgan terminal would support about 80 family-wage jobs, port officials said.
A second, separate proposal is seeking permission from the port to unload coal on barges from Port Morrow in Central Oregon onto larger vessels at Port Westward.
In this case, the applicant, a subsidiary of Australian coal giant Ambre Energy called Pacific Transloading LLC, would not need to bring rail cars to Columbia County.
The rail line runs through Rainier on its way to Astoria and is used primarily to supply logs to the Teevin Bros. yard in Rainier, according to Cole. In February, the Cascade Pacific Bio-Refinery is expected to start producing ethanol and receiving corn shipments by rail, but Cascade officials have not said how many trains they expect.
Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl said congestion is not an issue in her city because the rail lines run through less populated areas before arriving at Port Westward. She added that she knows people have concerns about both coal terminal proposals, but she's reserving judgment until she has more facts.
"Let's see what the proposal is. It really is very early in the game. They have go through a huge process," Pohl said.