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“As the Chief Executive Officer for the International Port of Coos Bay,” John Burns proclaimed recently, “I am disillusioned by Senator Merkley’s opposition to the Jordan Cove Energy Project.” And then he preached a vehement sermon about salvation through J.C., meaning Jordan Cove, not Jesus Christ.

By my count, Mr. Burns is only the Port’s 10th “CEO” since Steve Felkins was hired to bring us economic salvation, in 1974. Ever since its founding, the Port’s job had been to make Coos Bay’s “natural” harbor deep enough so the local mills could send out their products, in ever-larger ships. The port itself had no real economic expertise, in shipping or anything else. But Coos Bay’s smokestack economy was bound to decline, and government worshipers loudly claimed that the port, as a public “engine for development”, should be able to prevent that. Their fervor seemed to be fed by the recent moon landings. If government could put men on the moon, why couldn’t the Port of Coos Bay recruit new heavy industries, so we could remain Smokestack City? New Port CEO Felkins started spending borrowed funds on all kinds of speculative businesses pushed by shifty promoters, all of which failed, leaving the Port holding the bag. By 1981, the danger of overstaying his welcome dawned on Felkins, and he departed under some pressure. But his 7-year tenure was a valuable lesson in career timing, which Mr. Burns should take to heart. Since then the typical port CEO has stayed no longer than 5 years, to avoid seeing his own lack of achievements exposed. And only one, Allan Rumbaugh, had been fired, supposedly for his lackluster record, but really for staying so long that people started noticing.

Mr. Burns’s piece in The World of December 18 reminded me of the most disastrous Port CEO ever. Frank Martin was a Chicago swindler who milked the Port and the taxpayers, but only for the standard five-year term, from 1983 to 1988. And then he left, with some port funds that were not his to take. Martin, who also defrauded the federal government, used to confuse the aborigines with bombastic verbal flatulence like “transpacific,” “parameters,” and “infrastructure”. He also gave the port its painfully ponderous “Oregon International” title.

Frank Martin warned constantly that if his latest scheme for “development” was not implemented, Coos Bay would not survive, and he launched a new one every week. That’s how we ended up with the useless Urban Renewal District, the Enterprise Zone, the Foreign Trade Zone, and the barge slip, all on the North Spit, plus a Port that couldn’t pay its debts – again.

What worries me now is that Mr. Burns seems to have taken several pages from Frank Martin’s book. He predicts our doom if we don’t dote on Jordan Cove, which will “propel us up and forward toward prosperity,” “economic resurgence” and “infrastructure.” He also warns that opposing JC means opposing “the economic vitality of Oregon’s South Coast.” Wrong; history shows that it works the other way. It’s the port’s “development” mania during these past 43 years, including its promotion of JC, that has produced our permanent economic depression. Nowadays people don’t want to live near dirty, dangerous smokestacks. And any sensible person would avoid a place that condones an LNG terminal, with the incendiary power of several dozen Hiroshima bombs, which violates that industry’s most basic fire safety standards.

Whenever Frank Martin opened his mouth, lies came out. Mr. Burns promises that JC will “improve safety for all port users, including commercial fishermen.” Wrong again: due to Coast Guard safety rules, the LNG tankers will monopolize the daylight slack high tides that other vessels prefer to sail on, for their own safety. And during the tankers’ 2.5-hour transits, no other vessels will be allowed anywhere near them. I suppose that part may improve safety for those vessels, but without JC none of it would be necessary.

Mr. Burns also claims that “Jordan Cove will voluntarily pay roughly $500 million into the Community Enhancement Plan.” Voluntarily? Those payments were a cheap deal, since the company would have had to pay far more in property taxes if our politicians had abolished the useless Enterprise Zone.

Finally, Mr. Burns threatens us: “The project can happen here, or it can happen somewhere else.” Wrong again, on both counts. If the LNG industry’s own safety standards are observed, it can NOT happen here. Moreover, this Port is the only one on the entire coast that wants JC, because it badly needs something to show for 43 years of waste and stupidity. So there will be no “somewhere else” unless the terminal is located offshore. That would be an excellent solution except for the politicians and bureaucrats who so desperately crave JC’s money – for their own survival, not for ours.

Wim de Vriend

Wim de Vriend is the author of “The JOB Messiahs”, a thorough and entertaining history of four decades of failed economic development efforts in Coos Bay.

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