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Editorial: Who’s paying for phone surveys to gauge local reaction to exporting coal?

We all thought the possibility of Grays Harbor becoming a coal port was behind us. But somebody out there is still interested in the concept and has been conducting phone surveys to gauge public reaction to the concept.

At least a dozen people have contacted me in recent weeks to say that someone reached out to them by phone and asked them a series of questions on if they would be interested in seeing coal exported from the Port of Grays Harbor.

In late November, Port spokeswoman Kayla Dunlap issued a press release saying that the Port had nothing to do with the survey.

“The Port Commission has learned of a phone survey being conducted to gauge the level of support for the development of a coal export facility at the Port of Grays Harbor,” the release states, quoting Port Commissioner Chuck Caldwell. “The Port did not sanction this survey and we have no knowledge of who did. We can unequivocally state that there are no discussions or plans for an export coal facility at the Port of Grays Harbor. … The Port of Grays Harbor works hard to pursue safe and effective job development initiatives and values the trust and confidence of the community in bringing these efforts to fruition. We thank you for your support and will continue to provide our customers and our community with the highest level of service.”

Ron Figlar-Barnes, who was Caldwell’s unsuccessful opponent in the recent Port election, says he received a call from a Florida-based survey firm called Sterling Research Group back on Nov. 25.

“The individual only had one question with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer,” Figlar-Barnes posted in an online message. “Would I support a coal terminal in Grays Harbor exporting coal to the Asian Markets? I was a bit dumbfounded by the question as I thought coal was a thing of the past and corrected the surveyor by asking if he meant oil. He said it was coal and not oil. The question was preceded with a statement along the lines that the coal terminal would generate millions of dollars in revenue (for who exactly — never mentioned) and provide income to the local economy through the creation of construction jobs for the terminal. I tried to find out who requested the survey but the surveyor said that information was not available and that they are never told who requests the surveys — anonymous is best. My answer was a “NO!!!” and asked him to record it that way.”

Since seeing the statement by Figlar-Barnes, I’ve had at least a dozen people contact me to say they had received the phone call from a survey company. One person received a call as recently as January.

The local rail line had shown interest in building a $100 million coal export facility at Terminal 3 to ship 5 million tons of coal annually from the Powder River Basin of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, primarily overseas to China. But in April of 2012, the rail line allowed its signed agreements with the Port of Grays Harbor to expire, opting no longer to pursue the option. Caldwell was among those who started to show a concern that coal dust may be an issue that would be a hard swallow for residents on the Harbor to accept.

A few months later, Puget Sound & Pacific teamed up with other companies to support three separate proposals to ship crude oil from the Port of Grays Harbor, instead.

Although some of the coal proposals have gone away, the coal issue is still alive and strong across the region.

A progressive news service known as the Inter Press Service recently posted a news story celebrating “victory for activists” because the Grays Harbor proposal had been killed. Proposals in Coos Bay, Ore. and Clatskanie, Ore. have also apparently been abandoned.

The terminals still pending include a two-port plan called Morrow Pacific, in Morrow, Ore. and St. Helens, Ore.; the Millennium Bulk Terminal at the Port of Longview, Wash.; and the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Bellingham, Wash.

The state Department of Ecology is currently taking a look at all of the proposals together, as well as the cumulative impact the rail traffic and the assorted impacts it could have on the state.

Environmental groups have often wondered why the same catch-all approach isn’t being taken by the state agency in charge of the permitting process on the oil terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor.

Whatever the case, even if the Port isn’t involved this time, someone is still interested in the coal concept and is spending money on an out-of-state firm asking the opinion of those on the Harbor.

Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at editor@thevidette.com

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