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."

Kinder Morgan estimates that the terminal will require between $150 million and $200 million in capital investment for construction and development. According to Keyser, the port would add 50 well-paid jobs to the local economy.

Taken together, the five terminal projects would require more than $1.5 billion in investments and provide more than $20 million a year in taxes to Oregon and Washington. Even after construction ended, they would employ several hundred people for daily operations.

But Rainier's Nelson cautioned that those benefits would have their own costs. "The terminal at Port Westward is supposed to create 50 jobs," he said. "Between our businesses here in Rainier, my wife and I employ 15 people. I can't tell you exactly what's going to happen, but I can tell you we won't be employing 15 people if the train goes through."

Not on our river
Coal producer Ambre Energy Ltd. has proposed an alternative route to Port Westward, one that would spare Rainier and many other towns along the way. Ambre's proposal would carry coal by rail to the Port of Morrow, near Boardman, Ore., where it would be loaded onto barges and floated down the Columbia River. At Port Westward, the coal would be transloaded directly from the barges onto oceangoing freight vessels.

But even Ambre's more modest proposal of 8 million tons per year has hit a strong current of opposition, this time from Northwest tribes concerned with the impact of increased traffic on their ancestral fishing rights over the Columbia River. Most vocal in opposition has been the Yakama Nation, whose members have subsisted for generations off salmon, steelhead and sturgeon from the Columbia and its tributaries.

"We see it as incompatible use," said Emily Washines, spokeswoman for Yakama Tribal Fisheries. "Our leadership and legal counsel have an ongoing review of activities and options. Right now we're primarily monitoring the Army Corps of Engineers [environmental assessment of the Port of Morrow], but once we've reviewed their response to our concerns, we'll decide where to go from there."

The tribes may, in fact, have more power to oppose the terminals than towns like Rainier or even cities like Missoula. While towns along the tracks have little influence over the cargo sent through their communities, the tribes of the Northwest have legally binding treaty rights that guarantee them the right to fish, unimpeded, in their ancestral waters.

"There's been many fishing rights cases that have reaffirmed the tribes' treaty rights to access fish along historical tributaries," said Washines. "These are high-profile cases, and by now the precedent is pretty solid."

"What makes it difficult for us is the amount of different proposals, all of which would send coal along the Columbia at some stage or other," she added.

The Yakama Nation is one of a number of entities -- including U.S. EPA, the governors of Oregon and Washington, and several city councils -- that have called on the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a comprehensive environmental impact statement. Rather than site-specific evaluations of the various terminals themselves, a comprehensive EIS would look at the combined effects of all five terminals on the Northwest.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500