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That process will probably take at least until March. Agency representatives acknowledged Thursday that they won't be the final decision-makers. "This won't be done at the staff level," commented the Corps of Engineers' Randel Perry. Ecology's Jeannie Summerhays has consulted with her boss and she, in turn, expects to talk to the new governor, Jay Inslee. At Whatcom County, Tyler Schroeder talks with County Executive Jack Louws.
Politics will ultimately enter the decision. Inslee is a Democrat who made a reputation as a climate-change hawk, but he has been largely silent on coal exports. The Everett Herald, in an editorial, called on him to take leadership against the coal shipments, but in an environmental-policy article Inslee wrote for Publicola the topic was notably absent. In like manner, re-elected President Barack Obama talks climate change but has not engaged coal directly. Whether the White House would intervene with the Corps of Engineers on something like scoping for an environmental review is problematic, although its Council on Environmental Quality is known to be monitoring the case. Both Inslee and Obama picked up dollars and votes from environmentalists.
Before taking the case to their bosses, agency representatives must plow through thousands of comments in addition to those spoken at the meetings (You can read online comments here). They insist they read all except form letters (which are counted but not posted online), and they have learned from the process. Perry says he's picked up at least 10 ideas he hadn't previously considered, and a new suggestion can arrive at any time.
Thursday night, just as the meeting was to conclude, one of the final speakers raised a question that in turn raised panel eyebrows. Chris Bast of Climate Solutions called attention to Seattle waterfront rail tunnel and suggested the scope include review of diesel-emissions ventilation at the tunnel mouth, which he said might exceed federal air-quality guidelines when used by long coal trains. It was the first time in hours of testimony that the issue was voiced and the panel was taking notes.
Jack Delay of CommunityWise Bellingham, who has followed the issue, feels it should be addressed in the environmental review: "Effective lobbying has kept locomotives exempt from the same pollution standards applied to other industries for decades. EPA Tier 4 standards, which reduce emissions by 90 percent, will be finally required in 2015, but only on new equipment. It will take many decades for existing equipment to be retired. A requirement for the use of only Tier 4 equipment . . . would provide some mitigation of health hazards. This approach could provide benefits along the entire corridor from Powder River Basin to Cherry Point if adopted more broadly."
So what are the regulators hearing, and how is it likely to affect the plan to ship coal to Asia through Pacific Northwest ports — primarily Bellingham and Longview?
Several observations may be offered by one who attended five of the meetings, missing only Spokane and Vancouver.
There is passion in the opposition and, although emotion cannot be studied as an environmental impact, neither can it be mitigated by advertising and PR.
Opponents remind an observer of the coalition that drove the Obama campaign in November: They are young, well-educated and willing to sacrifice economic growth for a livable environment; they are joined by retirees with hefty professional and scientific resumes and a majority of their strongest speakers are women. Sound familiar?
The scoping meetings were supposed to gather data, not debate the merits of shipping coal, agencies reminded audiences at each stop. The meetings, however, allowed a lot of people to let off steam, and if their views are sidelined in a bureaucratic process that ignores the steam, more energy will follow and it will target political offices.
Politicians studiously stayed away from the early sessions; by the time they got to Seattle they were front and center. King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Mike McGinn, accompanied by several city council members, spoke at the Seattle hearing. A day earlier, the mayor of Vancouver, Tim Leavitt, spoke to a coal-opposition rally before the official meeting for southern Washington. Something is afoot for the politically ambitious.
There is always a chance that Congress or the Washington Legislature could intervene, but the topic has become so complex that attempts to solve the disputes by legislation would be very difficult. Lobbyists are standing by.
Social media and online sources, including Facebook and the media, played a huge role in raising awareness of the issue. The largest newspapers in the state largely ignored the building movement and none have done in-depth reporting on the issues raised in the meetings. Yet thousands turned out, responding to friends who tweeted and emailed and passed along blogs and the online work of sustainability and environmental groups.
The issues most-mentioned in online comments and in the forums would be very difficult to study in a single-project review of the sort SSA Marine and other project backers would like. One cannot really consider the impacts of rail traffic by considering only Gateway Pacific without also looking at a terminal of equal size at Longview, which would nearly double the rail traffic generated by Gateway Pacific. But if a "cumulative area-wide review" is ordered — as is possible — what is the area and which of the impacts will be studied in this manner? There is little precedent.
Climate change is much on the minds of those who commented; whether the Northwest can be the finger in the dike that holds off the onslaught of this phenomenon is doubtful, but it may be the nub of the matter. The latest poll on the subject shows more Americans believe the globe is warming, and 57 percent want the federal government to "do a great deal" about it; the devil, of course is in the details.
It is the details arising from the scoping sessions rather than the passion they generate that will determine the shape of what promises to be a long and exhaustive review of Gateway Pacific and perhaps other coal-export proposals. The process has turned up a ton of details, from coal dust to diesel emissions, shellfish to burial sites, traffic congestion to whales. And so it went, and so it goes, perhaps for quite a while.
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