Editor's note: the story has been updated to include comments from SSA Marine.
Whatcom County dealt a serious, if preliminary, blow Thursday to a proposed new coal export terminal north of Bellingham by requiring an entirely new application from SSA Marine for a key shoreline permit for its Gateway Pacific Terminal. County planners told developers they could not simply revise a 1997 shoreline permit, because the much-larger terminal planned in 2011 is "not within the scope and intent of the original proposal."
SSA Marine could appeal the decision to the county hearings officer and, if denied, to the state Shoreline Hearings Board. The county also termed "incomplete" a second application, for a major development permit, but the requirements to bring that report up to muster did not appear to be as serious a setback as the shoreline ruling. At the least, the ruling will slow the process of starting environmental work on the terminal, which would be the largest coal-export facility in the country.
The decision, announced at close of business Thursday (June 23), was a victory for environmental and community groups that had fought the idea of a terminal exporting some 48 million tons of coal annually to Asia, primarily China. Much of the community opposition, in Bellingham and increasingly in other rail-line towns, centered on increased rail traffic, an estimated 18 additional mile-and-a-half-long trains each day when the terminal is at capacity.
Jack Delay, co-chair of a Bellingham group whose logo is a train engine with a question-mark, termed the decision, "a victory for common sense and due diligence in looking out for the interests of Whatcom citizens."
The county's ruling has no immediate impact on rail traffic; the next step in that process is when opponents ask the county to expand the scope of environmental studies to go beyond the terminal site itself and include impacts on communities along the rail line. Scoping, as that process is called, won't begin until a new application is filed, however.
The terminal at Cherry Point requires a host of permits, but the immediate issue was two permits issued in 1997 by Whatcom County, a shoreline substantial development permit and a major project permit. The former primarily deals with waterfront and wharf, the latter with upland storage and operations. SSA Marine on June 10 filed an entirely new permit for the uplands but only a revision of its 1997 permit for the shoreline. Those filings triggered today's decisions.
SSA, in its Project Information Document, asserted the reasoning: "Because the upland portion of the Terminal design has changed from the previously permitted project, it is anticipated that a Major Project Permit (MPP) will be required. . . No changes to the Shoreline Substantial Development Permit for the wharf and trestle are required. Once the MPP is granted, several additional County permits will be acquired, including building permits."
Terminal opponents argued that the changes are so large — primarily including the dominance of coal exports — that applications should go through a new application process and not be allowed to revise an old permit that no longer seems applicable to the project. A coalition of environmental organizations represented by Earth Justice attorneys Jan Hasselman and Kristen Boyles, wrote to the county on June 17, charging that the shoreline application was "neither legal nor sensible," and should be rejected by the county as "incomplete."
"Export of coal involves substantially different environmental, health, fire control, and safety risks compared to other products; it uses different practices for handling, dust control, loading, and transport; and it is exceedingly controversial with the public," the Earth Justice letter to Whatcom County asserts. "Simply put, the previously-approved dock will be put to a new "use" — loading of huge volumes of coal — and that requires a new permit."
Hasselman's June 17 letter triggered a last-minute letter from SSA Marine attorney William Lynn. In a letter sent just hours before the decision, Lynn stated: "We disagree that the inclusion of coal as a commodity changes the 'use' of the facilities . . . the Whatcom County Shoreline Management program defines use in a very broad way and the use approved here was a multiple commodity bulk-shipping terminal with provisions to change commodities over time. The proposed revisions do not change that use."
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