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Industries gear up for the epic fight over NW coal ports

The regulatory agencies are laying down legal ground rules for a long, well-funded, high-stakes battle over coal exports to China. Here's a pre-game rundown.
A train runs along Bellingham Bay

A train runs along Bellingham Bay Courtesy of Paul K. Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

It's not exactly your father's design for a public hearing, but the seven public meetings to determine the scope of the giant export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham may better reflect the realities of communication in the 21st century.

Citizens interested in the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which under current plans will serve primarily to export coal to Asia, may weigh in until Jan. 21 in a variety of manners. When they are done, environmental officials will determine what should be studied among a broad variety of topics ranging from the global (coal's effects on global warming) to the regional (increased train and ship traffic) and local flora and fauna (wetlands and herring stock).

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County are jointly conducting the Environmental Impact Statement process.  They hope to publish a draft EIS in 2014; it is unlikely any earth will turned for at least another year and the first coal ship is not likely to sail to Cathay much before 2020.

As scoping continues, Americans vote, and elections could affect the final determination of the coal-export process. Washington gubernatorial candidates have not focused on the matter, but Democrat Jay Inslee is pushing a green-energy program that is not in synch with coal. At the national level, Republicans in the House of Representatives recently passed a pro-coal measure and the party at all levels has been skeptical of climate change.

Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark also has a role, assuming he is reelected, as Cherry Point includes a critical DNR aquatic reserve; Goldmark approved a management plan in 2010 and SSA Marine must adhere to that plan. Local elections in 2013, particularly for county council positions in Whatcom and Cowlitz counties, could also be critical.

Hope continues in some quarters for some type of comprehensive look at the five terminals proposed for coal export in Oregon and Washington, but the Corps of Engineers, federal lead agency in this field, has already rejected a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) in one instance, and the Cherry Point hearings are proceeding without this alternative. Northwest coal-export projects involve multiple jurisdictions and multiple ownerships of coal and land; descriptions of a PEIS in large federal projects such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or large-scale solar developments on federal land, don't seem to fit our situation.

Inevitably there will be talk and perhaps study of the cumulative effect of the projects. Certainly two big projects at Longview and Cherry Point would have more impact than a single port. The exact nature of that study won't be apparent for months, in what is certain to be a long and contentious process.

The length of the process — SSA Marine of Seattle announced plans for the export terminal in 2010 — reflects both the size and complexity of the project and the level of public opposition. That opposition is based on concerns dealing with coal emissions and dust, train traffic and diesel emissions, impacts on other freight and passenger rail service, and a broad unease best defined as "quality of life," particularly among Northwest communities that have pursued a "green agenda" sharply at odds with coal.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Bellingham, the small city tucked away in the nation's northwest corner, a community frequently on the lists of best places to live or visit, where citizens tax themselves for parks, schools, and open space and host a College of Environmental Studies and several sustainability nonprofits.

Bellingham will lead off the scoping public hearings on Saturday, Oct. 27, and the four-hour event will test a new hearings format. The remainder of the meetings, as announced by Ecology, include: Friday Harbor, Nov. 3; Mount Vernon, Nov. 5; Seattle, Nov. 13; Ferndale, Nov. 29; Spokane, Dec. 4 and Vancouver, Dec. 12.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Anyone else notice the oil sheen in Paul Anderson's photo?

CDog

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

There seems to be some fundamental confusion here. I believe that the meetings Ecology will host are simply to determine the scope of the EIS. The local public hearings on the shoreline permit applications (most likely before Whatcom County's hearing examiner) will take place after the EIS is scoped and published. Those decisions in turn will be appealable to the state Shorelines Hearings Board and thereafter to Superior Court (then to the Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court). Scoping the EIS is just the first step on a long, long road.

woofer

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 4:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Woofer is correct. This is a process to gather scoping information from the public, not a review of the Draft EIS or a vote on the merits of the project. That will come later, probably in 2015. It will have to come before the Whatcom County Council.

Scoping is important. If specific issues are not raised now there will be no legal standing for raising them later. We need to speak out with our questions and concerns by January 21st.ulinorln inside

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 8:27 p.m. Inappropriate

My apologies if I was not clear; please read the first two paragraphs of the story, which state that the meetings or hearings (choose your term) will determine the scope of what is to be studied. Scoping certainly is important and determination of the scope will be perhaps the most critical point for citizens to register their views. Once a draft EIS is completed, it will trigger extensive hearings--but the scope determines the nature of the matters to be studied for that draft EIS.
A corrective note: I referred to Ambre Energy as an Austalian giant--perhaps I had been reading their P.R. In any event, I'm reliably informed that Ambre is struggling, to put a good face on it, and isn't in the same league as Peabody and Arch.

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 9:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Floyd -

Thank you for an excellent and thorough article. Or almost thorough article:

While you did mention that the issues faced by the San Juans were different from those of Bellingham or Spokane, I think you could have gone into more depth. As a San Juan Islander, please allow me.

The transit of Panamax and Capesize ships are of concern, yes, because of the possibility, or given time and the number of ships, the probability, of a massive and ecology-destroying accident, but also because of on-going daily and cummulative impacts. The diesel fumes will blow from the south over our islands. The ships transversing Rosario Strait will delay tourists and medical patients alike. The loud deep sounds eliminating from ships in transit and parked south of our islands while waiting their turn in the one-way Strait will deafen human and Orca alike. And how many tourists will support the economy of islands better known as a parking lot for stinky giant ships than for the once-there-used-to-be Orcas?

And it is not just the potential for 1000 giant cargo ship transits caused by the proposed Cherry Point terminal we in the San Juans have to worry about. The cargo ships will have large tugs accompanying them and transiting back and forth. British Columbia wants to triple both its tar sands and oil shipping through Haro Strait on our western shores. The impacts and potential for accidents will rise more than arithematicly. The people and other species of the San Juans will be caught in a pincer-grip of noise, pollution and danger.

We don't just visit these beautiful islands as many of your readers may. We live and breathe these islands. Their lands and waters sustain us. We are so glad that many others in the State have also come to see how special and unique is the place we call home. We hope they too will lend their voice to speak out against the new shipping threat that the Cherry Point Terminal will bring us.

Posted Fri, Sep 28, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Obviously the fix is already in; the decision has already been made on Wall Street and in the relevant board rooms, and now all that remains is for it to be rammed down our throats, no matter the extent to which it triggers our gag reflexes.

Thus the coal port with all its attendant environmental ruin is to be imposed on us all, exactly as implied by the pivotal verb in Mr. McKays's second paragraph: not the conditional "would" but the defining (and definitively militaristic) "will serve."

Anyone who imagines otherwise is in denial about the long history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the traditional spear-point for environmentally destructive projects favored by the One Percent. Precisely as Mr. McKay reports, the corps is already restructuring the misleadingly named "process" to minimize opportunities for effective dissent.

Which is not to say we should surrender without a fight. In a struggle of this sort, literally a battle for the future of the entire Puget Sound region, any obstruction placed in the enemy's path is a victory.

But we should nevertheless recognize that the war -- to prevent Puget Sound from being reduced to Appalachia West and to save Western Washington from being turned into a satellite of West Virginia -- is already lost. We are thus (again) victimized by the death of the U.S. experiment in constitutional democracy and by imposition of its vultures-come-home-to-roost replacement: absolute power and unlimited profit for the Ruling Class, total subjugation for all the rest of us.

As to Craig Cole and the role he is playing in the Appalachianization of Western Washington, I am not the least bit surprised. Cole was a slippery sycophant of the Ruling Class – a Republican in Democratic disguise – when I knew him at Western Washington State College in 1971, and obviously he remains so today.

Meanwhile in the entire coal-port affair we see yet another bitter example of what is emerging as our most painful 21st Century lesson: that without economic democracy, there is no democracy at all.

Posted Fri, Sep 28, 9:30 p.m. Inappropriate

@ - loren bliss

Please recall that Craig Cole also championed a disastrous Chicago Bridge and Iron project on this site in the 1980's. It did not happen. That is fortunate as soon after it was built there would have been no market for its product.

With coal ships loitering off the shores of China with loads the brokers cannot sell that could also be the fate of this projects if permitted.

Never underestimate the power of the people!

Posted Sat, Sep 29, 3:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Common sense suggests coal & shipping interests expect only one terminal is even remotely viable - Longview. Why consider shipping terminals in Oregon and Bellingham? It's a provocative question. Why ship coal via rail when barging to Longview with least dangers of derailment & fire, more environmentally sound, less controversial? Another profound question. Is this the Big Boys messing with the little people? Bingo! Romney-ites of dirty business may not have to live with untreated asthma but they sure profit from the air pollution. Low-pollution energy is probably not profitable enough to include in their investment portfolios.
Bottom Line: Coal will NOT be shipped via rail through the Pacific Northwest. Eat dirt, big boys.

Wells

Posted Mon, Oct 1, 2:03 p.m. Inappropriate

I think Wells makes a good point. Why would anyone pursue the most politically difficult and least rewarding financial venture choosing to ship the coal an additional 150 miles north from the Columbia River through Washington's major population centers? are there non-obvious flaws in the Longview site that would make it as troublesome as the Cherry Point site? if so the author does not mention them. Bringing big ships that far up the Columbia has to be an impediment; is that it? SSA operates a log exporting business out of Longview, they must know all the pros and cons.

kieth

Posted Mon, Oct 1, 2:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Readers raise the question as to why not OK Longview, reducing the long coal trip through Western Washington to Cherry Point. A couple of reasons: 1) There's no public process to allow an agency to pick and choose which of the applicants among the five competitors gets the terminal, and 2) Gateway Pacific at Cherry Point is a project of SSA Marine (Goldman Sachs has 49%) and has a contract with Peabody Coal. Millenium Bulk Terminals at Longview is a project of Ambre Energy, an Australian firm and Arch Coal has 38 percent ownership. Arch Coal would mine the coal. So we have totally different, competing, firms in the game and all hope to make a lot of money. It's hard to imagine any of them throwing in the towel and I don't see a public process to make a choice between them. Perhaps legislation could do that but I've not heard that scenario advanced.

Posted Tue, Oct 2, 6:38 a.m. Inappropriate

This whole idea is stupid. Send coal to Asia so that more power is available for more outsourced United States business. This is a bunch of foreigners and Goldman-Sachians wishing to trash our state. We bailed out Goldman-Sachs for this?

Also, Goldman-Sachs has extensive investment in China. Goldman-Sachs finances factories, and even infrastructure in China. Goldman-Sachs created both the facilities ,and the infrastructure for the Chinese Apple Juice Concentrate industry. The Goldman-Sachs creation of the Chinese AJC industry did damage to the Washington State, and the United State AJC industry. Goldman-Sachs uses the benefit of the United States to damage the United States economy, and build up the Chinese economy. This needs to end. We can do our part by stopping these coal trains in their tracks.

jhande

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 10:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. McKay apparently believes that if Millenium Bulk Terminals were to have it's port facility approved and
(this is hypothetical) Cherry Point were to be rejected then Peabody Coal would not have any access to the Longview rail and dock facility. That might be true but I think it is more likely that Peabody would simply pay whatever tariff it could negotiate and find a reasonably happy arrangement with MBT. That would pressure the facility to handle bigger volumes which would, presumably, be regulated by the Port of Longview and whatever environmental restrictions were placed on the development. If there are no ruinous limitations to bringing big ships up the Columbia (and turning them around) that might not be a bad outcome.

kieth

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