This is the second in a three-part series.
When President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law in 1970 — a law sponsored by former Washington Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson — neither man could have imagined what a complex and controversial law they had created. For developers, NEPA became a swear word, for environmentalists a tool to be sharpened and wielded. States would go on to create their own State Environmental Policy Acts (SEPA), and Washington’s is now very much in the spotlight. Together, SEPA and NEPA will determine the fate of what could become the nation’s largest coal-export terminal.
That would be Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) north of Bellingham at Cherry Point on the Strait of Georgia. The project developer, SSA Marine of Seattle, plans a $664 million facility capable of handling up to 54 million tons a year of bulk commodities; 48 million of those tons will be coal. When SSA Marine applied for a permit to build the terminal in March 2012 it triggered a process that will play out for years, engage a complex web of public agencies and generate a compendium of scientific studies and permits and the almost inevitable legal challenges.
There is no telling at this early stage whether SSA Marine will be successful in its efforts to build a coal terminal at Cherry Point. Part Two of our Coal Train series will attempt to lay out the arduous process that is already underway as we move, slowly, towards a final decision.
During four months of public meetings that ended this week, the terminal's opponents told three public agencies what issues they believe should be studied in environmental reviews of the terminal project under NEPA and SEPA. The public meetings, which closed Tuesday, are part of a process called “scoping.” The scoping phase is the first of two opportunities for the public to influence the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will ultimately go to decision-makers.
Eight thousand people attended seven scoping sessions. About 750 of them spoke. Others signed comment sheets. An online scoping site collected over 10,000 comments. It was the biggest turnout of its kind in Northwest history. This part of the process inevitably skews towards the opposition. It’s designed to let people express their concerns, not to conduct a poll on the terminal’s popular support.
Moving forward, the key agencies — Whatcom County (where the terminal is proposed), Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — now must review the scoping comments and determine what the EIS should include. This part of the process is being managed by the regional engineering firm CH2M Hill, which was awarded the contract after competitive bids. The joint agency team, working with CH2M Hill, will take at least two months to agree on the scope of the environmental review.
Every part of the process is taking longer than originally expected because the public concern over the terminal — and its major commodity, coal — has been overwhelming. The past four months have been dominated by public feedback, but the process now will be driven by specialists in everything from marine biology to air quality, economics to transportation.
This specialist phase, if you will, is complicated by the fact that the agencies involved operate under different laws; NEPA for the Corps, SEPA for Whatcom County and the state's Department of Ecology. Despite their different jurisdictions, the agencies are working toward a single EIS statement. The Corps’ Patricia Graeser channeled A. A. Milne to explain: “The single EIS provided by the contractor would include the potential impacts each of the lead entities is required to document. For example, if Agency A isn't required/authorized under the laws and regulations governing it to document impacts to heffelumps, but agency B makes a determination that it is required to do so, then impacts to heffelumps would be in the EIS in order to meet the need of that entity. How exactly that type of information would be put forward in the document would be discussed among the agencies.”
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