Both backers and critics of a massive coal-export terminal north of Bellingham used that term Wednesday as a scope of environmental review was announced by federal, state and Whatcom County officials. The results, which will include a look at greenhouse gases, rewarded a grassroots opposition campaign that ranged from the coalfields of Wyoming to the outer islands of Washington.
“This scope is a reflection of Northwest values – the depth and breadth of the scope is absolutely on target and appropriate given the impacts this project would have on our way of life,” said Cesia Kerns, director of the Power Past Coal coalition that fought the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) in public hearings across Washington.
“Today’s announcement represents an unprecedented treatment of rail and exports in Washington state and could have far-reaching repercussions that should concern anyone who cares about trade — of all kinds of products,” was the comment from the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, an umbrella group of terminal supporters, including major energy corporations.
The joint decision by Whatcom County planners and the Washington Department of Ecology amounted to a breathtaking victory for the thousands of terminal opponents who packed hearings across Washington and entered more thousands of comments, often with very specific scientific data dealing with air and water pollution, climate change and rail traffic. (Read the announcement here.)
Agency representatives cautioned that the broad scope of review is only preliminary to the decision-making process. As Crosscut explained earlier, that’s a complex and political process involving state, federal and local officials. Once the environmental review is completed in perhaps two years, agencies must act on several individual permits before the terminal can begin construction. But the breadth of the environmental study is staggering, and is not subject to legal appeal; the process of reviewing the terminal’s proposal is in place.
Most remarkable was the decision by the Washington Department of Ecology to include in its study the end-use of the 48 million tons of coal that would be shipped each year from the Gateway Pacific Terminal to the hungry furnaces of Asia. That decision could have national and even international repercussions on climate change.
Ecology will require “an evaluation and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions of end-use coal combustion.” That rewards climate-change speakers at seven public hearings, who urged agencies to examine the impact on this region of coal burned in China, which they say not only speeds global warming but also sends noxious emissions to the Pacific Northwest.
Two years ago, climate-change activist Bill McKibben addressed about a thousand people on a drizzly outdoor stage in Bellingham, calling on them to stop the export of coal. “If not here, where? If not now, when?” he challenged the group, which included leaders of the community’s “green” core.
Ecology also ordered a statewide assessment of the impact of added train traffic to serve GPT, 18 unit trains a mile and a half long would carry coal to the terminal and return empties to Wyoming. Whatcom County said it would target train impact on both Bellingham and Ferndale, a major victory for CommunityWise Bellingham, which has pressed for such a study. Ecology promised, “a detailed assessment of rail transportation on other representative communities in Washington and a general analysis of out-of-state rail impacts.” Communities across the BNSF rail line from Mount Vernon to Cheney have raised concerns about the added rail traffic and potential cost of building overpasses to mitigate the traffic. The terminal would generate 18 unit trains a mile and a half long each day.
Also included in the far-reaching scope determined by Ecology is assessment of cargo-ship operations beyond Washington waters; GPT would receive and load nearly a thousand ships a year, including the huge Capesize ships, the world’s largest bulk carriers. Residents of the San Juan Islands have demanded such a study and also examination of the impact of additional shipping on whales and other marine live in the Salish Sea and its islands. State agencies will review marine life.
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