Politics has never been far beneath the surface of the simmering debate over building a new deep-water shipping terminal north of Bellingham to export coal to China, but an exchange of letters this week brought the community's divisions to a boil.
Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike, who announced his opposition to the Gateway Pacific Terminal project a week ago, fired off a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday asking her to direct the state Department of Ecology to take over the role of lead agency for environmental studies at the Gateway Pacific site, in effect displacing Whatcom County from that role.
The county fired back an angry letter denouncing Pike's "erroneous and malicious statements," and asserting that county leaders had already asked Ecology to step into a lead position. "(M)onths ago," wrote Randall Watts, chief civil deputy prosecutor, in a letter to the governor, "Whatcom County requested Department of Ecology to join us as co-lead in the (environmental impact statement) for the Gateway Pacific Terminal Project." Later in his letter, however, he referred to "discussions" with Ecology rather than a request.
Ecology has not received a request to take a more expansive role. "In late April," said Ecology Spokesman Larry Altose, "(Whatcom) county staff informed Ecology that the county planned to submit a request to Ecology asking the department to take on a limited co-lead responsibility related to greenhouse gas analysis in the environmental impact statement [EIS]. The request would be based on our expertise in greenhouse gas issues and the statewide implications of greenhouse gases. We have not received a formal request from the county, but have continued to talk with the county about the feasibility of such an approach. The county has not asked Ecology to be co-lead on the entire EIS or to take over as lead agency. If and when such a request comes in, Ecology will evaluate it at that time."
Mayor Pike suggested to the governor that other communities in Washington be included in environmental impact studies of the terminal because of the impact of additional coal trains on those communities. An estimated 18 trains a day, both full and empty return cars and running more than a mile and a half in length, are expected to move through Washington state daily en route from the Powder River Basin coal fields to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. Currently about six trains a day —full and empty — ply the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line carrying coal to a terminal south of Vancouver, B.C. Together, the trains would total 24 daily if the terminal operated to its capacity of 48 million tons a year of coal exports.
Bringing community impacts into the environmental process would require a great deal more expertise and staff than Whatcom County has, Pike asserted, and that appears to have triggered the ire of the county. County Executive Pete Kremen, who retires this year, was angered when he learned of the mayor's letter. Despite the heated rhetoric, the city and county may not be totally alienated on the matter; Kremen has said he would support the study of impacts on Bellingham as well as at the terminal site, and Pike in his letter to the governor did not so much criticize the county as state the fact that the county is not equipped to deal with statewide issues.
Pike noted, "The interests of the state, administered by the Department of Transportation, Department of Ecology, Department of Natural Resources, the State Department of Fish and Wildlife and others, are beyond the scope of Whatcom County's authority and interests when it comes to imposing substantive mitigation. It appears the County does not have the resources, nor understandably, the expertise to conduct the comprehensive and cumulative impacts analysis necessary under (the State Environmental Policy Act) along the entire rail line corridor within the state, including impacts related to greenhouse gas emissions, health impacts from particulate emissions, effects on road maintenance, or traffic delays.
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