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    Coal port faces a new level of environmental scrutiny

    The state will pursue environmental questions about a facility near Bellingham all the way to China.
    Government agencies' representatives listened to numerous people testify about the level of environmental review for the Gateway Pacific coal port terminal.

    Government agencies' representatives listened to numerous people testify about the level of environmental review for the Gateway Pacific coal port terminal. Floyd McKay

    The  Cape Violet, a Capesize coal bulker built in 2009 and operating under Panamanian flag, recently stopped at Westshore Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C.

    The Cape Violet, a Capesize coal bulker built in 2009 and operating under Panamanian flag, recently stopped at Westshore Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C. Paul Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

    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


    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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    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 6 a.m. Inappropriate

    This is good; it probably seals the fate of coal shipments in this state. We can pat ourselves on the back, go sip some merlot or have a latte. We can tell ourselves what great stewards we are of our environment and feel good about fighting the good fight.

    Wait a minute; Powder River coal is still going to be shipped to China via Canada? Peabody Coal and others are still going to make obscene profit? Once again, we pick the low hanging fruit, and tell ourselves we won the good fight. The only way to stop the environmental degradation is to stop the mining of coal. Of course, that is just too much work and it will take us away from our latte and merlot. The old adage “it does not take much to fool a fool,” is proven again.

    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 11:02 p.m. Inappropriate

    Not if Canadians have anything to say about it.


    Seriously, am I the only person who is able to access news in Canada? Everyone down here seems to be pretending like Canadians want this ish, and they don't.

    That said, yes, we should indeed stop the mining of coal.


    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 9:39 a.m. Inappropriate


    I think you are dead wrong about the adage. In point of fact this proves that in spite of snarky stereotyping and mountains of misinformation, folks stood up for their communities and asked to look at these projects in a realistic and comprehensive fashion. They were not fooled by the sound bites lavished on them by project proponents. And they should be rightfully proud of that.

    Bob Ferris


    Posted Fri, Aug 2, 1:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    Mr Ferris,

    What you say is true, but your response (patting everybody on the back for seeing clearly) proved my point. Yes we did a good job in a very localized fashion. However, coal is still being shipped to China, and the pollution is arriving here everyday. Let us not be complacent with small things, Let us stop the mining and really accomplish progress!

    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 10:36 a.m. Inappropriate

    Ecology's decision is why people like me, who were tempted by McKenna's likely superior managerial skills, ended up pulling the lever for Inslee. No one should imagine that this scoping decision comes out the same if McKenna were sitting in the governor's chair.


    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

    How could you not evaluate the effect of shipping out that much coal? Bullshit on the snarky comments - folks from all walks of life will be glad that a dozen coal trains a day are not rumbling through their back yards - just take a look at what towns are in the opposition camp from Wyoming tru Seattle.


    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

    Legal Question: The Corps of Engineers determined that "many of the activities of concern to the public, such as rail traffic, coal mining, shipping coal outside of U.S. waters and burning of coal overseas are ...activities... too attenuated and distant from the proposed activities being evaluated by the Corps to be considered effects of the Corps' permit actions." [p. 5 of July 3 Memorandum for Record]

    So, it appears to me that the broader SEPA review announced yesterday will NOT APPLY to the COE's consideration of permits for the piers under its jurisdiction. Isn't this NEPA determination still subject to legal challenge if/when the COE makes a decision to issue those permits?


    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    Good question. Ecology is the lead state agency, the Corps for federal. Typically for such a large project the state-fed leads will get together and develop a format for the EIS that meets the concerns of the state and feds - so they don't have to waste time doing seperate documents.

    Also - Clean Water Act Section 401 certification is delegated from the feds to most states, in this case Ecology is the lead - so they also have the hammer of a federal permit. In short, the Corps can't ignore this and go their own way. And oh yea, either way this turns out it will be in court.


    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 11:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    Good question. My understanding is that a single EIS will cover all impacts for both federal and state permits, with each agency relying selectively on those EIS elements relevant to its determinations. The ACE has concluded that the relatively limited federal permit activities will not contribute to the larger systemic impacts identified for review by the state under SEPA.

    In my view, this would offer a rather minor secondary basis for legal challenge. If the state permits are denied based on the broader systemic issues, the federal permit issues will become moot. If, on the other hand, the state permits are granted despite the broader analysis, they will become the primary focus of future litigation. There would be no separate federal EIS adequacy question because the joint EIS covered all the bases -- even though not all of it was used for the ACE review.


    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate

    Coal trains already pass through the PNW on their way to Canada. For conversation's sake, let's say they decide to expand operations, but BNSF would still deliver the product. This decision would then only affect the what a US port's effect would be. Specifically to the local environment of Bellingham/Ferndale in the long run.


    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 10:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    There was a time when proponents claimed there was nothing that can be done to stop coal ports in the US.

    Hardly anyone remembers it now, as it has clearly been proven wrong. Their claim has retreated to the position that nothing can be done to stop coal ports in Canada.

    It won't take much for that position to collapse, either.


    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 1:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    While I'm not for coal trains, this is a very bad idea. Washington State is going to poke it's nose into Chinese politics and the actions that take place in that country. We should be prepared to have other nations poking their noses into our state and local politics and the actions that of our government takes on our behalf.

    A lawyer friend of mine once remarked that litigation is a two way street and those with the deeper pockets are those who can best afford to travel that road.


    Posted Mon, Aug 12, 3:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    Its not really Chinese politics. It Wall Street and Big Fossil Fuels Inc. And just what they would litigate I can't even imagine.
    As for financing litigation, there were over 125,000 comments received on the EIS scoping, most of them negative (i.e. on the people's / Earth's side). Raising all the money needed for money for litigation on this will be easy. This is now the premiere climate fight in the US where there are very good chances of stopping it cold. Coal exports from the Powder River Basin by other routes are just too expensive at this point, so this has regional, national, and potentially global impact.

    Steve E.

    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 3:22 p.m. Inappropriate

    In the United States, federal law trumps state law -- always, no exceptions. Note for example the Obama Administration's continued prosecution of medical marijuana users despite the legality of medical marijuana in Washington state and elsewhere.

    What then is to prevent the notoriously pro-Big Business, anti-environment U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from ignoring all state and local opposition and issuing the requisite permits?

    Such an outcome would undoubtedly be tied up by lawsuits for many years. But the Supreme Court -- the ideological make-up of which is rendered permanent by the economic and political realities created by the Citizens United decision -- would undoubtedly rule in favor of the Corps.

    I know of at least one precedent for such a devastating federal action: the seizure of vast amounts of privately owned lands, including at least one entire town, for the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Google "Loyston Sea Norris Lake," quotation marks unnecessary.

    (This is not to debate the merits of TVA, which with its pre-Reagan purposes of flood-control and reforestation was literally the socioeconomic rescue of much of the South from the long aftermath of the Civil War. It is rather to cite the reality of federal pre-emption of local decision-making in such matters.)

    Given the federal power of eminent domain, the record of the Corps and the make-up of the Supreme Court, the eventual imposition of the coal port in defiance of local and state opposition is therefore as close to an absolute certainty as anything in U.S. politics can be.

    Meanwhile Mr. McKay does his readers a disservice by not pointing out this bitter truth.

    At least though, due to the time the case will likely take to wend its way through the courts, I'll surely be dead when the endless coal trains announce the Appalachianization of Puget Sound and -- with the additional pollution from China -- sound the final horns of our extinction.

    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    Federal law pre-empts state law if the two are in direct conflict. Here the federal and state permits deal with separate aspects of the project, so there is no pre-emption issue.


    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 5 p.m. Inappropriate

    Au contraire, Woofer. Google Kelo v. City of New London. (See also http://www.volokh.com/2013/07/01/the-case-for-federal-eminent-domain-reform/) A similar rationale -- short-term economic improvement for local government -- could be used to impose the coal port.

    Indeed, even a pro-port majority on the Whatcom County Council could theoretically do the same thing, voting that economic interests trump environmental concerns. No doubt such a decision would be accompanied by assurances the corporations behind the port promise to ensure protection of the local environment -- much as Exxon/Mobil protects the environment of the Gulf of Mexico.

    But then I'm admittedly a cynic. The ultimate lesson of my many years in journalism is the same bitter truth Bill Moyers now openly acknowledges: that U.S. "democracy" is perhaps the biggest Big Lie in human history.

    Besides, according to a new Elway poll (originally reported by state labor council via The Stand, but since mysteriously disappeared from that online publication and now available only at http://www.coalguru.com/north_america/majority_of_washingtonians_support_coal_terminal_development/11507), about 60 percent of the state's voters support building the port as a source of jobs, the environment be damned.

    Beyond that, particularly given the recent revelations of how we truly do now live under Nazi-style tyranny -- see specifically "Online Search for Pressure Cooker Sparks Chilling Police Visit" (http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/08/01-7) -- surely you don't imagine the will of the One Percent will ever again be thwarted in their United Estates of America.

    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 10:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    I'm afraid this interpretation of the law isn't entirely accurate. Kelo applies to eminent domain uses by government for private benefit, and while an unfortunate opinion in many regards, isn't actually germane here.

    The permitting decisions are largely in the domain of the local land use power, which is a whole different matter entirely. It would be extremely difficult for the proponents to overcome a local rejection of the port's permits.

    You are very much right to point out that the local government may be inclined to support the proposal based on economic interests. But that decision is many years off, and today's news is still a setback for the applicant. You are also right to point out that when the 1% comes knocking, the law can often be changed.

    But from no part of this is it reasonable to conclude it's not a battle worth fighting. Whether it can be won or not is actually irrelevant, as it should be fought regardless.


    Posted Fri, Aug 2, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

    Umm, no, you are wrong. Whatcom county has to comply with state permits laws - such as a Hydraulic Permit Approval by WA Department of Fish and Wildlife, a 401 Water Quality Certificate by WA Department of Ecology, WA Dept of Ecology input into the Clean Water Act Section 404 and Section 10 Corps Permits, among others.

    Then there is the Federal Endangered Species Act and the US Fish and Wildlife Service input on listed steelhead and marbled murrelets (that use the shoreline)and the National Marine Fisheries Services that has jurisdictin over federally listed salmon and steelhead; marine mammals, and Essential Fish Habitat under the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act.

    Whatcom County Council would never go for eminent domain - but if in some far-fetched universe the did, this would only apply to who owns the land - not if they could build it. And guess what - the project proponents already own the land so it's a moot point.

    And then there is the Tribal politics - they have already played their card and it is a very high hurdle to get over. I doubt this thing will ever get built.


    Posted Mon, Aug 12, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    Eminent domain is simply irrelevant to this situation. For the feds to completely override all local permitting authority under independent state laws would be unprecedented. It would require the equivalent of a declaration of war or some other "national security" type of cover. Very very unlikely for a privately owned export facility. And its not by any means assured that this US Supreme Court would override state sovereignty. I'd put my money on the Supremes not doing so, even if the beneficiaries are Wall Street Capital and Dirty Fossil Fuels Are Us.

    Steve E.

    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 10 p.m. Inappropriate

    Burning a ton of coal will destroy the oceans. The insanity of it should elicit a similar response of Charleton Heston in The Planet of the Apes. [riding down the beach in the last scene] Oh my God... I'm back. I'm home. All the time it was... we finally really did it. [screaming] YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! OH, DAMN YOU! GODDAMN YOU ALL TO HELL! (camera pans to reveal the half-destroyed Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand)

    Posted Thu, Aug 1, 10:52 p.m. Inappropriate

    I realize I'm going out on a limb here... but I don't follow.


    Posted Mon, Aug 5, 12:24 p.m. Inappropriate

    While the results of this study will no doubt be intellectually stimulating, I fear the precedent they will set will be disastrous.

    Opponents of this study (not necessarily proponents for the coal export terminals), claim that taking into account the end-use GHG emissions would be disastrous for any industry, especially those in durable goods because of their long life spans. I would think software and agriculture would be the same.

    Can we handle the results of a study that looks at the carbon footprint for a each copy of Windows? Between running the computer, the server farm, and any other activities by the end-user as a result of his or her copy of windows, I would assume the numbers would be several megawatts per copy.

    Apply this to each Boeing airplane of the life of the plane and conceivably countries could adopt this end-user GHG model to ban aircraft, software, and even agricultural imports.

    Which brings me to my two final questions, where does the WTO fit into all of this, and what is the GHG emissions related to this EIS and related advocacy and public process (just kidding, sort of)?

    Posted Tue, Aug 6, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

    Points worth pondering, but I think this is a bit different. First - because of the project's size it is required to complete the EIS process, which has had an increasing focus on GHG production in recent years, i.e. - what is the effect of a new (bridge, road, tunnel, whatever) on the produciton of GHGs. For most infrastructure it's a nominal, marginal increase.

    This - the amount of tonage of cal carried and its planned ultimate destination kinda smacks one in the face with a need for analysis - the main shipped product is on the A List of contributors to global warming. Your examples - say software production or building planes - requires no EIS process. Unfair? Maybe.


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