RAINIER, Ore. -- The grainy photograph hanging on the wall of the Ol' Pastime Tavern here recalls a time when lumber still defined the economy of the Northwest. It was taken in 1924. The tavern -- at that time still a hotel and saloon -- is perched in the foreground, flanked by smaller clapboard buildings on either side. Railroad tracks run down the main street amid piles of logs waiting for the next train.
Nine decades later, those tracks still cut through the heart of town, passing the Ol' Pastime and a dozen other Rainier businesses as they skirt the southern bank of the Columbia River. Soon, they could put Rainier squarely in the path of some 30 million annual tons of coal, mined from Montana and Wyoming and bound for the Pacific and Asia.
The town is one of a score of communities that lie between the Powder River Basin, home to 40 percent of U.S. coal reserves, and five proposed export terminals in Oregon and Washington. While none of those projects has yet entered the construction phase, Kinder Morgan's Port Westward project would send 12 coal-packed trains per day through here. It has yet to complete its due diligence process, but the prospect has already generated fierce opposition at both state and local levels.
"It'd essentially put us out of business," said Sloan Nelson, owner of the Ol' Pastime Tavern and a Rainier city councilman. "The proposal they're asking for at Port Westward is 1,400 train cars a day through the center of town. The businesses we have here are service businesses. People aren't going to be coming here for services if they've got to wait for a milelong train to go by first."
The proposal put to the town by Oregon state officials and Kinder Morgan includes raising the track bed and installing an iron fence around it, he said. While it is currently possible to walk across the tracks at any point, the new infrastructure would limit pedestrians and motorists to three crossings, closed any time a train was passing.
Similar complaints can be heard up and down the proposed routes. In St. Helens, half an hour south of Rainier, increased train traffic could cut off a local school from the rest of the town. As far back along the lines as Missoula, Mont., city councils are complaining about increased traffic congestion, noise pollution and coal dust.
"Right now with our current volume of train traffic, the noise alone is a significant quality of life issue," said Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier. "The trains are required to blow their horns through partially controlled intersections. They already pass through several times a day -- what would it mean for us if there's a train coming through every hour?"
Some hope for economic gains
The terminals have some local champions as well. One is the city of Clatskanie, Ore., a 10-minute drive north of Rainier and the closest town to Port Westward.
As with many towns in the region, Clatskanie's fortunes rose and fell with the lumber industry. Unemployment for the county stands at 10.6 percent, nearly 3 percentage points higher than the national average. One of Clatskanie's most iconic buildings, the Humps Restaurant, was recently forced to close down when its owners were unable to sell the property.
"That was a real heartbreak for us," said Robert Keyser, president of the Port of St. Helens Commission and a resident of Clatskanie. "It'd been a cornerstone for the community."
To many residents of Clatskanie, the proposed terminal at Port Westward offers a chance to revitalize the flagging economy.
"It would mean a great deal of funds coming to the county through property taxes. It might not benefit the city directly, but it would mean more money coming into our school district, which is in chaos financially," said Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl. "And of course it would benefit Clatskanie in a peripheral way because people would be moving here, buying homes and shopping in stores."