In June 2011, seeking to learn more about the public health and environmental impacts associated with coal export plans, the Sierra Club filed a simple request to the Port of Coos Bay under the Oregon Public Records Act to learn more about their plans to develop a major coal export terminal. Media reports had referenced confidential agreements the Port was involved in with unnamed coal companies, but little information was publicly available.
Because the Sierra Club would not profit from the information and would instead use it to educate the public, we requested a waiver of fees. In response, the Port of Coos Bay went on the attack. They demanded that we supply them with unnecessary and invasive information about Sierra Club board members and claimed it would cost almost $10 per page to view over 2000 pages of public documents they had in their possession. Of the approximately $20,000 they sought, nearly $17,000 of it was for attorney’s fees alone, billed at $200 per hour.
As it became clear that the Port was attempting to block access to the public records by charging unreasonable fees, we made an appeal to the Coos County District Attorney. After considering the facts, the District Attorney agreed that charging nearly $17,000 in attorneys fees was ‘unreasonable.’ In a late February decision, the District Attorney wrote eloquently, “the Public Records Law as a whole embodies a strong policy in favor of the public’s right to inspect public records. If an agency places a high cost on the public in order for the public to obtain access to the records, the rights of the public to have access will be hindered, chilled or even denied.” Even the Coos Bay World newspaper, which to date has shown little sympathy for the Sierra Club’s efforts to block coal export, editorialized in our favor in the public records case.
Unfortunately, the Port of Coos Bay is now appealing the District Attorney’s decision to circuit court. In the meantime, they have charged another organization, Eugene based Beyond Toxics, $22,000 for public records related to hauling coal by train through Eugene and other communities along the route of the Coos Bay Rail Link.
Stay tuned, this battle is just beginning.