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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