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    Coal Train, Part 3: Who gets to greenlight Bellingham's giant coal port?

    Eight politicians, a few agency heads and an Army general will all weigh in, but the buck stops with one man.

    (Page 2 of 3)

    The Corps of Engineers will take the lead on assessing environmental impacts to a 160-acre wetland that may be affected by the proposed coal storage and loading facilities, as well as any impacts from the terminal's docks and piers. The Corps is a sprawling military bureaucracy with an influential civilian engineering staff that will guide work in this area. Ultimately the generals will sign off, but politics may intrude. The Obama Administration’s Council on Environmental Quality has reportedly discussed the coal-export issue, and the president has ramped up his rhetoric around climate change. The administration may want to weight in on Gateway.

    Federal politics could be even more interesting if former Gov. Chris Gregoire is named to head a federal agency involved in this decision. Reports have tied her to both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior, which controls coal leases. Directors of both high-profile agencies have recently resigned. Gregoire has friends on both sides of the Gateway issue. She gave early signals in favor of the project, then went silent on the issue during her last year in office. It’s unclear where she stands.

    Her successor, Gov. Jay Inslee, figures to play an important role in the actions of the state’s Department of Ecology. Inslee named Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant to head his legislative affairs and policy shop. Inslee, who made a name for himself in Congress as an environmentalist and climate-change hawk, can make a statement about the Gateway project with his appointment to replace Sturdevant at Ecology.

    In Spokane last week, Inslee said he will urge agencies to look at railroad traffic on a statewide basis as they examine the GPT application, rather than limiting the review to the terminal’s neighborhood only. He is talking with legal advisors to see if a study of climate change impacts can also fall within the purview of the Gateway EIS.

    In a January 4 letter signed by Ted Sturdevant, Ecology asked the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Surface Transportation Board to consider area-wide impacts of a proposed new rail line in Montana. The Tongue River Railroad Co. has drawn sharp opposition from area ranchers and environmentalists. The line would open up new coal fields; the new coal would likely go to Asia via the Pacific Northwest. In his letter Sturdevant asked the federal agencies to examine the new rail line's impact on Washington State.

    The state’s Department of Ecology oversees permits for water quality and storm water disposal. Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service (part of NOAA) must also approve permits. The little-known state agency, Archeology and Historic Preservation, weighs in on cultural issues and artifacts, extremely important when tribal concerns are at issue. Which they are with the Gateway terminal; the Lummi Nation argues that the project threatens its fishing grounds and a cultural site. Each of these agencies has its own process, and each may allow for public comments before granting (or denying) the necessary permits. An optimist would predict a final clearing of all permits by 2016, four years after initial applications were filed. 

    But that’s not the end. One more approval is required. Perhaps the biggest hurdle—and the last—is getting Gateway by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. If Gateway can clear all the other hurdles, SSA Marine must still secure a lease to build its facility within the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, which was established in 2000.

    Goldmark alone makes this call, and there is no appeal short of the courts. The lease would be a “business lease,” which means it may not require a public process; business leases are typically negotiated. Goldmark updated the Reserve’s management plan in November 2010 shortly before the public learned that coal was the target export commodity at Cherry Point. The 181-page management plan doesn’t mention the word “coal.” But it is filled with strict measures to protect species and habitat in the Reserve.

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    Posted Thu, Jan 24, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

    And then there are the Courts. Federal and State.

    Corps of Engineer decisions would likely be challenged in the Federal District Court, with appeals to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
    State decisions would begin at the Superior Court --- proceeding to the Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court.

    In the end, the Judges decide. In the meantime, lawyers battle, interest groups sell memberships based on their efforts pro and con, and news organizations have "film at 11" and reams of copy to write and sell.

    The likelihood that Gateway will ever be built is slim and none.

    But all is not lost. The "economic development" to stop the project - in terms of dollars spent and employee hours committed - is not inconsequential.

    The coal? It will find its way to a market, if not now then later.

    Posted Thu, Jan 24, 10:10 p.m. Inappropriate

    The description of the review process is a bit vague. The county's hearing examiner holds a hearing and makes a decision on the shoreline permit applications, not a recommendation. This decision can be appealed on the record to the county council, which can reverse if it finds a legal error. On the other hand, the (inevitable) appeal before the Shorelines Hearings Board is de novo, which means that an entirely new evidential hearing is held. The SHB hearing is likely the most important single event in the process. It is where the state agencies get to weigh in and where the essential evidential record is made. The SHB decision can be appealed on the record to superior court, then to the state court of appeals and finally to the supreme court. All of this can take many years to play out. Inlee's effect will be seen primarily in the posture that the Department of Ecology takes before the SHB and in his appointments to the Board itself.


    Posted Fri, Jan 25, 8:21 a.m. Inappropriate

    "He is talking with legal advisors to see if a study of climate change impacts can also fall within the purview of the Gateway EIS."

    Whether the project's impact on climate change will be considered is crucial to making an informed decision.


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