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.
Traditional public hearings are held before a governing body, augustly settled on a dais, with the folk addressing them from podiums; project proponents lead off, opponents respond and finally "the public" has its say. By this time both the bottoms and heads of the notables are asleep, but the requirement of "public input" has been satisfied.
Scoping on Gateway Pacific will be different, beginning with the acceptance of written statements this week (Monday, Sept. 24) and continuing until Jan. 21. Online testimony will be taken 24/7 and logged by the agencies.
The public meetings will avoid the traditional agenda-driven process by giving attendees a choice of ways to comment. Ecology spokesman Larry Altose described it to Crosscut: "There are no agendas. Each meeting, which is more like an open house than a formal hearing, will have an information area where people can browse posters and speak with staff. The materials at the meetings will be the same as those on line.On line is like a 24/7 meeting. People who want to give comments at the meetings can do so in writing at key-in stations, orally at small tables, or sign in first-to-sign-first-to-speak in a larger seating area. Representatives from the co-lead agencies will be present to listen in these larger areas. People can come and go during the meeting time. Scoping comments will be posted on the website, promptly, but not live."
It is an open question whether the accumulation of mountains of letters and emails and hours of oral testimony will prove a better gauge than the old public-hearing system; clearly it will pose logistic challenges for regulators and advocates as well.
Strategists on both sides of the issue were uncertain this week how to view the process and how best to present their cases. Although the export terminal is not the size or complexity of such public projects such as Sound Transit, viaduct replacement, or airport expansions, it has generated more controversy and push-back than most of those projects largely because the terminal's first and (thus far) only export cargo is coal, the bad boy of global warming and a commodity moved 100 percent in mile-and-a-half-long unit trains with the blast of air horns and emissions of coal dust and diesel fumes. The fact that most of the coal will wind up fueling power plants and factories in China doesn't add to its allure.
Equally challenging for SSA Marine and its allies is the decision by agencies to go both broad and long in setting up seven locations for public comment. Spokane and Vancouver are a huge nod to those who believe that adding some 18 unit coal trains per day to the region's rail traffic is a losing proposition. Trains would enter the state at Spokane, move through Tri-Cities and down the Columbia Gorge to Vancouver, taking a right turn up the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line to Cherry Point. Spokane is already a rail hub and its suburban neighbor, Cheney, is heavily impacted by current rail traffic.
The Columbia Gorge and the river it overlooks draw concern from recreation enthusiasts as well as defenders of the region's salmon fishery. The Vancouver meetings will also produce testimony from Oregonians concerned with proposals to ship coal from the Port of St. Helens; and from Longview-area folks who are looking down the road to an application from Millennium Bulk Terminals to ship some 44 million tons of coal a year from Longview. The public process on that project is a few months from commencing, and will also be contentious.
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