Coal Barges Threaten the Columbia River

Ambre Energy proposes to send over 2,500 coal barges per year down the Columbia River to export coal to Asia. This huge increase in barge traffic, especially never-before-seen coal barges, threatens public safety and recreation on the river. Ambre’s plans call for strip mining coal in the Wyoming and Montana, sending coal trains to Boardman, Oregon, loading coal onto barges at Boardman, and transferring the coal to ocean-going ships at the Port of St. Helens in the Columbia River Estuary.  Up to 50 coal barges per week will be staged adjacent to Crims Island, a recently completed $2.2 million salmon habitat restoration project.


  • Ambre will add 5,029 new barge trips to the Columbia River every year.
  • Ambre’s coal barges will create a 94% increase in barge traffic from current levels.
  • Coal barges threaten public safety on the river. For example, the Yakama Nation stated: “Each barge, particularly those in transit during hours of darkness and/or foul weather, represents an increased safety risk to fishers operating small boats, often at night and in foul weather, to harvest fish from their nets. . . . [I]ncreased barge traffic in the project area will considerably increase the safety risk to tribal fishers.”
  • Coal barges will degrade recreational use on the river, including nuisance and danger to fishermen, pleasure boaters, windsurfers, and kiteboarders. The Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association recently passed a resolution opposing coal barging.
  • Barges will degrade tribal treaty fishing rights, according to the Umatilla, Yakama, and Nez Perce Tribes. Increased barge traffic will block fishing access to usual and accustomed fishing sites.
  • Ambre will stage forty-eight coal barges per week in a prime salmon nursery in the critically important Columbia River Estuary. In fact, the coal barges will dock right next to and impact a $2.2 million salmon habitat restoration project recently completed at Crims Island, funded in part by the Army Corps of Engineers. While the Crims Island project restored habitat used by juvenile Chinook salmon as they transition to the marine environment, the 2,500 coal barges transported by high-thrust tugs will threaten the salmon. See study here:
  • Columbia Riverkeeper and a coalition of conservation and public health groups submitted detailed comments explaining why the Oregon Department of State Lands has the authority to deny Ambre’s permits.
  • The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is deciding whether to issue or deny Ambre’s Clean Water Act 401 water quality certification.  If DEQ denies the certification, Ambre cannot built its proposed coal dock.

What’s Next?

Ambre Energy is currently seeking permits from the State of Oregon and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the docks for the coal barge project. Both the State of Oregon and the Army Corps have the authority to approve or deny the permits. The Power Past Coal coalition submitted extensive comments to Oregon and the Corps of Engineers.

Excerpt from May 3, 2012, Columbia Riverkeeper et. al comments to the Corps of Engineers, page 22-23 (thanks to the Crag Law Center for drafting the Corps comments):

The Morrow Pacific Project’s significant increase in barge traffic from the Port of Morrow to Port Westward will also adversely impact public safety and welfare. According to Ambre’s recently submitted Biological Assessment, the project will increase the number of barges on the Columbia River by 94%. Table 3-5 from the draft Biological Assessment aims to capture the drastic increase in barge traffic:

In fact, Table 3-5 and Ambre’s draft Biological Assessment underestimates the true impact of the project on the Columbia River upstream of Bonneville Dam. Specifically, using Bonneville data ignores the fact that these barges are now going all the way to Boardman, through two more locks and 100 more miles of river. There are almost 1000 less barges going through John Day Dam than going through Bonneville Dam.80 In turn, without accounting for barge traffic through the John Day and The Dalles dams, the true increase of barge traffic from the Port of Morrow to Bonneville Dam is not captured.

The significant increase in barge traffic also increases the risk of barge groundings and spills in the Columbia River. These risks are not theoretical. For example, in 2009 a barge carrying a million gallons of gasoline ran aground in the Columbia River near the City of Hood River. An investigative report by the Oregonian uncovered U.S. Coast Guard documents describing a “great deal of confusion” over who was in charge, with agencies responsible for containing a fuel spill left out of the loop for hours after the accident.81 The Corps must consider the potential adverse impacts of significantly increasing barge traffic on the dynamic Columbia River, and the increased potential for groundings and spills associated with the increased volume of barge traffic.

Similarly, the Corps must evaluate the increased risk of direct conflicts with existing barge traffic on the Columbia, including the increased risk of catastrophic accidents. For example, on the Mississippi River, which experiences a higher volume of barge traffic than the Columbia, accidents involving barge collisions demonstrate the increased risk to human life and the environment posed by increasing barge traffic. For example, on May 20, 2010, three grain barges sank on the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge following a collision between a barge transporting food products and a barge transporting sulfuric acid.82 The accident prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to close the shipping channel. In mid-2008, a barge split open in a collision with a tanker, resulting in an oil spill and prompting federal agencies to close 85 miles of the Mississippi River to traffic for almost a week. According to reports, the accident was the result of human error.83 On February 17, 2012 a tanker barge traveling downriver on the Mississippi rammed a crane barge being pushed upriver about 50 miles from New Orleans. The collision tore a 10-foot by 5-foot gash above the waterline of the double-hulled tanker barge and oil spewed less than 10,000 gallons of Louisiana sweet crude oil into the water.84 These are just several examples of accidents involving barge traffic. Given the significant increase in river traffic from Ambre’s project, the Corps must assess the increased risk of barge accidents and potential threats associated with these accidents, including coal spillage, barges sinking, and oil spills, as part of the public interest review for the Morrow Pacific Project.

View the Port of Morrow’s Biological Assessment here. Note, this Assessment was completed by a contractor for Ambre Energy. It is not a publication of a state or federal agency.