You may have heard something about the firing of Catherine Mater, a chairwoman on the Oregon Transportation Commission. Mater was relieved of her duties courtesy of former governor John Kitzhaber after casting her tie-breaking vote opposing the ConnectOregon funding of a Port of St. Helens application for a $2 million grant to reconstruct Port Westward, a World War II-era dock on the Colombia River.
There are a few discrepancies throughout the whole situation, but more on those in a moment.
ConnectOregon is a state grant program funded by lottery and tax revenue. The program has awarded more than $380 million to fund non-highway transportation projects throughout the state. There are several requirements to be met before projects even apply for funding. Among them, projects are supposed to be ready for construction before submitting applications, and are also supposed to be able to match the amount of funding provided through the program.
Neither of these requirements were met by the applicant, a fact Mater has repeatedly pointed out. The application has been denied twice, and in the November 2014 decision, the OTC cited five concerns with the project application. Included in the concerns was the question of matching funding, which, according to the application, would be provided by Ambre Energy, although no documentation was provided by Ambre Energy that backed this claim, but maybe that is because they are about to sell themselves to another company. What’s more, last August Ambre Energy was denied a DSL permit that would allow a transloading operation to be built at the Port of Morrow, which would then allow their product to be barged to the Port of St. Helens. The company’s Oregon project would annually send about 8.8 million tons of coal to Asia via Colombia River facilities in Boardman and Port Westward. Ambre Energy also announced late last year they would be selling their interests in Oregon and Washington to Resource Capitol Funds, based out of Denver, Colorado. The $18 million deal is expected to pay off Ambre Energy’s debts.
So, there’s that…and there’s more. The application claimed the project was urgently needed to meet Port of Morrow’s requirements. Yet, with the denial of the permit, combined with the September 2014 suspension of Army Corps of Engineers permitting for the coal dock, OTC members questioned the stated “urgency.” The letter of concern also read, “Further complicating this matter was Ambre Energy’s permit application to DSL for the Port of Moscow project which conveyed that the company needed no improvements to the Port of St. Helens to allow their project to move forward.” Further complicating, or directly conflicting?
Moving on down the list of concerns, the construction readiness of the project was also in question. When the application was received, it was made to sound as though there were no issues with securing a DSL permit. The commission later learned DSL did indeed have issues with the port projects. “Information provided to the commission at the time of their review documented that DSL in fact did have issues with the port project, issues that had been ongoing for months.”
The last two concerns were regarding the larger project and its impact on rail congestion. With these concerns obviously being known by the commission, since they’re the ones that wrote them, some would be surprised there were any votes to approve the project at all.
There have been several criticisms flung about by each party involved, and Mater has been both criticized and praised for opposing the project because of her opposition of coal exporting. Environmental groups are outraged, and see the project as a terrible blow to the already delicate balance of global warming. Republicans, like Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde, are disgruntled over not being able to extract natural resources, a process which creates jobs.
However, there is one claim that has been agreed upon: the project isn’t about coal. “The real issue surrounding the story is not coal, it’s fraud: the submittal of fraudulent information to a public entity for the purpose of securing public funds,” Mater wrote in the St. Helens Chronicle. Port of St. Helens officials also state that it’s not about coal; instead the project is intended to upgrade ports. “This is not an application for a project for coal. This is not an Ambre project, it’s a port project,” Paula Miranda, deputy director of the Port of St. Helens, told commissioners.
However, there are undeniable ties to the port’s projects and Ambre’s coal-exporting ties.
Tammy Baney, a supporter of the coal grant, will now be running the commission. Kitzhaber wasn’t exactly a supporter of coal exporting, which further convolutes why he would fire Mater. Perhaps it was a case of politicians playing politics, and after the investigation of Cylvia Hayes, Kitzhaber needed to win back some legislators, and saw supporting the 2015 Oregon business priority of the transportation package as a way of doing so. He pointed to this very package in his farewell letter to Mater, writing:
As highlighted at the recent Oregon Business Summit, a transportation package is a priority in the 2015 session. In this new term I am advancing an agenda in support of a transportation revenue package toward that end, I am seeking new leadership for the Oregon Transportation Commission. Therefore your service to the Commission is complete effective today. Thank you for your service and I wish you well.
So he fired her despite the fact he, according to his campaign rhetoric, also opposes coal. At this point, there is not much to do other than speculate about the true reasons for Mater’s dismissal. What’s more, the issue will likely take a backseat to Kitzhaber’s resignation and the criminal investigations of his fiancé.
The commission is meeting on Feb. 19 to decide, for the third time, if this private company will receive public funding for a project to transport something the former governor was supposedly no fan of, much less most Oregonians, even if said private company is selling itself to get out of debt and doesn’t come close to qualifying for the state dole.
By Kirsten Allen