It is being called “unprecedented” but it seems to be rolling out as its authors had intended, perhaps the biggest experiment in environmental democracy the Northwest has ever seen.
That would be the “scoping” process to determine what effects the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal north of Bellingham would have on the region’s environment and economy.
When the process finishes on Jan. 21, it will have included public meetings in seven Washington cities, heard from citizens in at least five states and compiled thousands of opinions that three agencies must review to determine what will be studied in an environmental review that will last more than a year.
It is very serious business, not only for SSA Marine of Seattle, which proposes the terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, but for opponents who cite environmental dangers from the terminal’s major export, coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The coal would be transported to Cherry Point by some 18 BNSF trains (both full and empty returns) each nearly a mile-and-a-half long, and then to Asia in huge bulk-container ships, adding a thousand voyages a year to shipping lanes through the San Juan Islands.
The “scoping” meetings pick up on the opposition side of the debate; testimony at the first three sessions — Bellingham, Friday Harbor and Mount Vernon — brought out large and one-sided audiences. Attendance at the three meetings reached 3,500 and 980 people spoke or wrote comments, officials said.
Speakers overwhelmingly don’t want the terminal, fearing environmental consequences and taxpayer burdens to alleviate the problems brought by added rail and ship traffic. The opposition speakers ranged from Native American leaders to retired scientists, organic farmers, commercial fishermen and birders.
SSA and its industry supporters were largely absent from the hearings. The reason is quite simple: supporters of the terminal have one simple demand at this point in the process: keep the environmental studies limited if possible to the terminal site itself and the six-mile rail spur that will serve the terminal. They will file that position to the permitting agencies and it is probably counter-productive to keep repeating it at the opposition-dominated public meetings, although a handful of supporters spoke at each session.
Supporters of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would also ship some other commodities in addition to coal, are particularly worried that officials will decide to combine all or some of the proposed export-terminal applications into a single overview that would cover most of the region. “It is our belief that the impacts, both positive and negative, of this project should be looked at solely as they pertain to the (Gateway Pacific Terminal) proposal and should not include impacts of other proposed dry bulk facilities in other parts of the region,” said Ken Oplinger, president of Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, in a letter to agency officials.
Whether the environment review will be combined with other coal port plans — primarily the proposed Millennium terminal at Longview, which is also beginning its review process — is not likely to be decided while the Gateway Pacific scoping is under way. But it is possible, says Randel Perry, lead scoping official for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Perry told Crosscut that an “area-wide environmental impact study” might be considered, involving similar actions or proposals within a geographic area. The idea of multiple coal-export terminals might meet that standard for such a study, he suggested, without making any prediction as to its likelihood.
If an area-wide study were to be proposed by the lead agencies after the scoping process is completed, Perry said the call would be “decided at the top level of the Corps,” rather than locally.
Talks have also been held at top levels of the Obama Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency has asked the Corps to conduct an area-wide study. Such action would be opposed by all the terminal proponents but is highly sought-after by terminal critics. The Corps told Bloomberg BNA reporter Paul Shukovsky that 30,000 letters have been received on one coal-port proposal, including several from top agency or elected officials. Among those was one from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who wrote about the value of a wider environmental review. At top levels of the Obama Administration, Shukovsky reported in his article, which appeared before the election, “The White House Council on Environmental Quality convened a meeting of senior agency staff in August to discuss the proposals, which come in the midst of a presidential campaign in which Republicans and business groups have tried to focus attention on what they assert is the Obama administration's 'war on coal.' "
If it is expanded — and the Corps appears reluctant to do so — the environmental study could be under the auspices of any federal agency with an interest in the review. Congress would have the power to intervene, subject to presidential veto. Two decades ago, a plan by Chicago Bridge and Iron at Cherry Point prompted the Washington Legislature to enact a law suspending shoreline protection in order to allow oil-drilling rigs to be assembled; Gov. John Spellman vetoed the act. Congressional Republicans have made efforts to force President Obama to approve the Keystone Pipeline.
Is Gateway Pacific Terminal in that league? Clearly it is of more importance than Chicago Bridge and Iron because of its principal commodity — coal is a trigger-word for climate-change activists and rail and ship traffic for Gateway would dwarf that of Chicago Bridge. It may more closely resemble an aboveground Keystone pipeline — coal trains would cross four or five states and any impact on Salish Sea marine life could affect two nations. Canada is already sending nearly 5,000 commercial ships a year (loaded and empty, tankers, bulkers and container ships) through Washington’s waters. The terminal would add nearly 1,000 more.
A cumulative study could take into consideration the existing rail and ship traffic plus the 48-million tons of coal annually from Gateway Pacific and the 44-million tons from the proposed Millennium project at Longview. The scoping process for Millennium is about to begin with the Corps, Cowlitz County, and Ecology as partners in the study. If a decision were made for an area-wide study, the Whatcom and Cowlitz terminals could be morphed into a single review, perhaps along with three smaller proposals in Oregon.
The size of the turnouts and the breadth and passion of the speakers has already caused a schedule change. A Seattle hearing, set for Nov. 13 at North Seattle Community College, has been moved to Dec. 13 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, a much larger venue. An Ecology official said 3,000 people can be accommodated there. Agencies were concerned that the community college venue, with room for about 1,000 people, could not deal with the larger crowds they now expect.
Opponents of coal exports waved signs and banners and many stood for over an hour in a rainstorm to pack a Bellingham gym and auditorium on Oct. 27 with about 2,000 damp bodies. In Friday Harbor on Nov. 3 the San Juan Islands’ unique mix of funky and profound saw a man in a seal mask, a rap song, a poem, and an excited Chinese student who described dire effects of burning coal in her home country.
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