CANNON BEACH — The social and political issues that matter most to North Coast citizens came before two of Oregon’s prominent political figures Friday morning, when U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., held a joint town hall meeting at the Cannon Beach Community Hall.
“This is the part of the job we really enjoy — getting up here, talking to our constituents, finding out what’s on their minds,” Bonamici said.
The discussion made for a packed hour and touched on familiar local topics: from LNG to funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund; from getting federal recognition for the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes to establishing a charter school in Cannon Beach.
The controversial Oregon LNG project, involving the company’s plan to construct a terminal and pipeline for exporting the fossil fuel on the Skipanon Peninsula, became an urgent theme among the audience members.
By allowing Oregon LNG — which is controlled by a U.S. conglomerate headquartered in New York — to create a facility near the mouth of the Columbia River, “we would be throwing away this beautiful place that we have for the gain of someone else, somewhere else,” said Roger Rocka, of Astoria.
Given that many scientists expect a massive Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake to occur at an unknown future date — which may cause a tsunami to flood the Pacific Northwest coastline — LNG terminals “just don’t belong in this hazardous area,” Jan Mitchell, of Astoria said. “I just can’t say enough about how much this area opposes those operations.”
Bonamici acknowledged that the LNG issue is often framed as a trade-off between creating jobs and protecting the environment.
“I understand there is a need to build the economy, especially rural economies. There are many ways we can do that without jeopardizing the safety of our residents,” the congresswoman said. “And the more I learn about the Cascadia Subduction Zone and the resilience issues, and what would happen on the coast ‘when’ — not ‘if’ (the earthquake occurs) — the more concerned I am.”
Merkley said the “evolving science on natural gas” has changed the public’s understanding of the LNG issue.
“Now that we see fracking in full force, we have a huge problem with fugitive methane gas that escapes. Methane is a very potent global warming gas. By some estimates now, natural gas is equivalent to coal in terms of its global warming impact,” he said. “My basic feeling is, we should have a ‘go slow’ strategy, in part so we can understand the science.”
Josie Peper, of Astoria, wondered if the Lower Columbia River estuary could be granted federal protection as a National Scenic Area, like the Columbia River Gorge, to avoid environmentally unsound projects altogether.
Merkley said he does not view federal protection status as “a good fit for the Astoria area, where there’s economic development to be undertaken.”
However, he is working with other Northwestern states — Washington, Idaho and Montana — to create legislation that would provide for the river’s “protection and decontamination,” he said.
Jacob Dewey, 8, the homeschooled son of Kellye and Ryan Dewey, of Cannon Beach, told the elected officials, “We need a school in Cannon Beach. I want to know how you can help us with that.”
In June 2013, the Seaside School District closed Cannon Beach Elementary School and transferred its students to Seaside Heights Elementary School. Since then, a grassroots movement to set up a charter school, the Cannon Beach Academy, has taken shape, with the school’s organizers now aiming for a fall 2016 opening.
Though the federal government doesn’t directly help communities build schools, Merkley said it may be possible for some Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to help finance the academy since new schools must be located outside the tsunami inundation zone.
Bonamici noted that, because the academy would be a public charter school, additional funds might be available. “So we’ll be looking into that as well, because we’d like to help you get a school,” she said.
• Nadia Gardner, of Arch Cape, asked about the possibility of fully funding and permanently reauthorizing the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund program, which provides funds and grants to regional conservation projects throughout the country. The fund expires in September.
Merkley said he will use his position on the Committee on Appropriations to advocate for the continued funding of the program.
• Roberta Basch, cultural adviser to the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes, asked for Merkley and Bonamici’s support in restoring federal recognition to the tribe. She said the tribe would then be given rights to allow them to preserve both their culture and sites sacred to them for future generations.
Bonamici, who introduced a bill in the last Congress to restore the tribe’s federal recognition, said she will continue to work on the issue.
However, “I just want to be realistic and say that there wasn’t much appetite on the other side of the aisle to even move the bill into a hearing,” she added. “Restoring rights to a tribe is a big process. It takes time.”
• Ed Johnson, a Cannon Beach resident, expressed concern that the state had bypassed Cannon Beach’s residents last month, when the Oregon Department of Transportation removed about 30 trees 8 inches or more in diameter from U.S. Highway 101’s scenic byway. Because the trees were in a state right of way, ODOT was legally able to carry out the project without first obtaining a city permit.
Merkley said his staff will look into the issue to see where among the different levels of government coordination may be possible on future tree-removal projects.
Bonamici added she would work with Merkley’s office and those of state representatives “on better coordination to make sure that the local needs are more recognized.”