Coal Wars: Export backers push jobs, try to limit environmental review

Supporters of a coal port near Bellingham want to keep the focus on what they see as the main issues: More jobs and revenue for local governments.
SSA Marine Vice President Bob Watters addresses pro-terminal crowd at Ferndale.

SSA Marine Vice President Bob Watters addresses pro-terminal crowd at Ferndale. Brian Plonka

Gateway Pacific Terminal would be built at Cherry Point. (Click image to enlarge.)

Gateway Pacific Terminal would be built at Cherry Point. (Click image to enlarge.) Gateway Pacific Terminal

Coal trains already go to the Westshore Terminals Roberts Bank facility at Delta, British Columbia.

Coal trains already go to the Westshore Terminals Roberts Bank facility at Delta, British Columbia. Paul Anderson, Chuckanut Conservancy

An unprecedented series of seven statewide public forums on a proposed coal-export terminal north of Bellingham drew nearly 9,000 people to crowded hearings. Most of the big companies, public agencies and opposition groups weighed in with much less fanfare. At the agencies charged with an environmental review of the Gateway Pacific Terminal approach a first benchmark, a summary of some 124,000 comments, Crosscut today begins a three-part analysis of those last-minute comments from major players. Today, we look at the corporations seeking the terminal.

Peabody Coal calls it a “life cycle” analysis and SSA Marine says it's a “lifespan” review, but by any name or description it’s what most concerns the big companies pushing coal-export terminals in Washington.

That’s clear in voluminous official comments from Peabody, SSA and the BNSF Railway made at the close of public scoping testimony in January. Those comments are now in the cross-hairs of three public agencies charged with determining what must be studied in a complex environmental review of  the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Whatcom County and State Department of Ecology are collaborating as the lead agencies on the review.

There are wide-ranging implications in a so-called “life cycle” or “lifespan” environmental review. It would go beyond the usual examinations of the immediate environmental effects of a project in its own area to look potentially at regional and even national and international effects.

Opponents of the Bellingham terminal and another proposed at Longview, citing coal’s role in climate change, say global warming is an environmental impact of the terminals. Other activists oppose coal on health issues and fear a major increase in train or ship traffic. A life-cycle approach could study most if not all of these aspects.

A decision to conduct such a wide-ranging review could set a precedent for other projects across the nation. And it could make it much more complicated for the world’s largest terminal operator, the world’s largest private coal company and the nation’s second-largest railroad to win approval of their massive project. Gateway Pacific would handle 48 million tons a year of coal — Peabody and Arch Coal, the two largest potential Gateway shippers, together have options to ship 40 tons — making the terminal the largest in North America.

“Life cycle,” a term used at least a dozen times in Peabody’s 29-page scoping document, may be defined as “all stages of development.” A chunk of coal could be mined at a Powder River strip mine, loaded into a BNSF rail car, unloaded at Gateway Pacific into a huge bulk ship flying a flag of convenience, shipped to Asia and burned in a power plant.

Supporters of coal exports say that’s too big a reach to study all of that, and illegal to boot. They cite court rulings limiting environmental reviews to “issues that are truly significant to the action in question, rather than amassing needless detail . . . (the review) need not address potential impacts that are unlikely, remote or highly speculative,” in the words of SSA’s Bob Watters. The life cycle, echoes Peabody’s Christopher J. Hagedorn, “is impractical and inappropriate and simply cannot be entertained by the Co-Lead Agencies.”

A huge economic cloud hangs over the life-cycle approach. In the short term, Hagedorn writes, “the real objective of the GPT project opponents is exposed — to create a lengthy, cumbersome and unwieldy EIS project unlikely to result in any meaningful conclusions on real and discernible project impacts in any rational time frame so as to prevent the project from advancing from permitting to construction.” Such a review, he warns, could prevent “vibrant export markets” in energy and commodities from functioning.

Some business leaders — and the Washington Public Ports Association — took a similar stand in May 2012, calling the wider scope “death by a thousand lawyers.”


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

The purpose of a programmatic EIS is not to delay the process for most activists, myself included. A pit-to-port study is required to assess the real impacts of the proposals. SSA wants to talk about indirect economic benefits, but not direct and indirect impacts of mining the additional coal and shipping it through communities like Mt. Vernon whose downtown businesses would be negatively economically impacted. They can cite all the cases they want but they're not governing, because the impacts of the related activities we want scoped are not speculative, they are a given. Further, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has taken a much more pro-scoping position on such questions. The proponents know that, which is why they are so aggressively nuking the opposition messengers. But from the President's Council on Environmental Quality down, state and federal agencies know this question will, ultimately, be determined by the courts.

TJW

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Dr. McKay,

Your discussion gets at the heart of the debate: What, under State Law, is a PROBABLE SIGNIFICANT ADVERSE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT? Mining coal, on its face, is probably outside the scope of the Act. Burning coal? Difficult to say, it may depend on WHERE. In Centrailia? Yes, WA State has the power to regulate. China? You quickly get into issues of extra-territoriality. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803) may come in to play.

Regardless, SEPA is intended to INFORM decision makers, not to make, or be, the decision. Even if the impacts are adverse.

This decision, ultimately, will be made by the seven members of the Whatcom County Council. End of story.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate

The Whatcom County Council will make Whatcom County's ultimate decision. From there it goes on appeal to the State's Shorelines Hearings Board and into the state court system. As for economic benefits, it's good to remember that this is just resource extraction -- the main beneficiaries are the coal mine owners and the shipping companies. After the construction phase, few local jobs will be generated.

woofer

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Keep in mind that there are proposed and new coal mines whose only purpose is to supply coal for this proposal. SEPA is very clear that the review cannot just be limited to the impacts of just the construction, or even those under Washington jurisdiction or that occur only in Washington:

WAC 197-11-060 (3)(b) Proposals or parts of proposals that are related to each other closely enough to be, in effect, a single course of action shall be evaluated in the same environmental document.
(Phased review is allowed under subsection (5)). Proposals or parts of proposals are closely related, and they shall be discussed in the same environmental document, if they:
(i) Cannot or will not proceed unless the other proposals (or parts of proposals) are implemented simultaneously with them; or
(ii) Are interdependent parts of a larger proposal and depend on the larger proposal as their justification or for their implementation.

WAC 197-11-060(4)(b) In assessing the significance of an impact, a lead agency shall not limit its consideration of a proposal's impacts only to those aspects within its jurisdiction, including local or state boundaries (see WAC 197-11-330(3) also).
(c) Agencies shall carefully consider the range of probable impacts, including short-term and long-term effects. Impacts shall include those that are likely to arise or exist over the lifetime of a proposal or, depending on the particular proposal, longer.
(d) A proposal's effects include direct and indirect impacts caused by a proposal. Impacts include those effects resulting from growth caused by a proposal, as well as the likelihood that the present proposal will serve as a precedent for future actions. For example, adoption of a zoning ordinance will encourage or tend to cause particular types of projects or extension of sewer lines would tend to encourage
development in previously unsewered areas.
(e) The range of impacts to be analyzed in an EIS (direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts, WAC 197-11-792) may be wider than the impacts for which mitigation measures are required of applicants (WAC 197-11-660). This will depend upon the specific impacts, the extent to which the adverse impacts are attributable to the applicant's proposal, and the capability of applicants or agencies to control the impacts in each situation.

Steve E.

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Because of the federal component (the Corps is an agency co-lead), expect appeals to go to federal court.

TJW

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 12:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Would the export of apples or wheat survive a "life cycle" environmental review? How would this new standard affect manufactured goods like airplanes? I'm all for protecting our environment (though I know I'm going to get ripped for being an eco-barbarian in a minute) but we might want to be thoughtful about the precedents we set. We may end up having to live with a standard that precludes the export of even eco-friendly products.

Sounder

Posted Thu, Mar 21, 10:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Apples don't contribute significant GHGs upon consumption (methane?). Airplanes do (they emit large quantities of GHGs in both construction and operation), and it would be good to include consideration of the impact of building airplanes compared with, say, light rail. Unfortunately, our governance structure doesn't provide any decision points I'm aware of that would trigger such a review. Boeing is clearly too incompetent and self-serving to do it.

louploup

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 12:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Apples do not contribute to Mercury fallout from air pollution that blows here from China. Coal exports to China do.

Steve E.

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

The issue isn't just the commodities shipped but the volume. There were 1250 vessel calls to ports on the Columbia River in 2012. If the three proposed coal terminals were built, they would add more than another 1400 Panamax ships, plus barge tows. As my contractor from Skagit County said, it doesn't matter if there are rainbows on those trains, blocked intersections cutting off downtown Mt. Vernon [et al., back to the PRB] would be devasting for their local economy. We'll talk about apples when the US is planning on exporting 150 mmta; airplane parts when we're an exporter of manufactured goods. In the meantime, the potential vessel collisions and spills, train derailments and blocked intersections occur regardless of what's being shipped. We need to set a precedent, in other words.

TJW

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 9:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Hopefully, the state and feds determined the geographic scope, before they started soliciting impacts. Otherwise that was a colossal waste of tax money, not to mention people's time.

Why would they not procede in a sequential, logical, and efficient manner?

The fact that they did travel the entire state, indicates to me, that the geographic scope was in fact the state of WA, nothing more, nothing less.

The time for BNSF to protest the scope of geography, was when the locations of the meetings were announced. BNSF is a day late and a dollar short. O.K., maybe not a dollar short.

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 12:31 p.m. Inappropriate

See my posting of the relevant rule for SEPA in my reply to Ross, above. Consideration of environmental impacts under SEPA is not limited to only the geography under the agencies jurisdiction. So, yes, the environmental impacts from the entire proposal must be studied - and mitigated.

Steve E.

Posted Wed, Mar 20, 6:15 a.m. Inappropriate

The State Government needs to start actively fighting against the China Coal Ports. If not, State Government needs to end all talk of climate change measures. No more talk of carbon tax, or cap and trade, or even climate change.

jhande

Posted Wed, Mar 20, 12:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Our Governor seems to talk of little else but climate change. So far, his preferred solution to it seems to be to destroy a thousand acres of ancient forests at Bumping Lake to enlarge a reservoir that will probably never even fill. A reservoir to store water for people who waste it like it's free (wait - it pretty much is free to them...)

But regarding the transit of millions of tons of coal, we hear from the Governor......silence........

Posted Wed, Mar 20, 3:15 p.m. Inappropriate

You are right. The Yakima River Basin plan is not environmental, and it is appalling that Inslee uses climate change to tout it.

jhande

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