State steps in to help handle a coal port proposal in Bellingham

It's a step sought by opponents of the proposal, who feared having the study under the sole control of the small Whatcom County government. Whatcom County had also asked the state for help.

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The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

It's a step sought by opponents of the proposal, who feared having the study under the sole control of the small Whatcom County government. Whatcom County had also asked the state for help.

The Washington Department of Ecology will step into the environmental review of a proposed coal-export terminal north of Bellingham, and assume a co-lead role on the review at the request of Whatcom County, which has the statutory responsibility to do the environmental assessment.

Letters were exchanged Friday (July 15) between the county and state, with Whatcom County making a formal request that the state take co-lead responsibility and Ecology accepting the invitation. County and state officials had been discussing the prospect for some time, and several mayors from Washington cities along the railroad line that would ship coal from the Powder River Basin to the Gateway Pacific Terminal north of Bellingham were in the process of sending a formal request to Gov. Chris Gregoire that the state take a co-lead role. (Seattle's Mike McGinn became the first to take a public stance. See separate story.)

The action is significant for two reasons: it will bring the much larger state agency into the picture, with more expertise than can be offered by the small Whatcom County planning office. It also increases, at least by implication, the likelihood that the study will be expanded to include off-site impacts of the large terminal.

Opponents of the $600 million export terminal have been pressing for environmental review of off-site impacts, particularly that of about 18 daily trips of mile and a half long coal trains (full and empty) running through Western Washington, including Seattle, along the Columbia Gorge, and through Spokane. The impact of diesel fumes and coal dust along the route, along with transportation interruptions and impact on Amtrak are cited as important, although they do not occur on the terminal site. Some 120 physicians in the Bellingham area have also petitioned to have health effects studies.

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike, who organized the mayors' letter, has been calling for the state to either join the Whatcom study or take it over, because of the limitations of the small county planning staff. Gateway Pacific's sponsor, SSA Marine, has resisted off-site impacts being considered.

A spokesman for SSA Marine said the terminal developer was neither surprised nor disappointed with Ecology’s new role. “Ecology has been involved and will be involved in the process,” William Lynn told Crosscut, “It’s good for everyone; this will integrate their expertise early and in a seamless way. This will get their input on the table earlier, instead of commenting later to Whatcom County. We’re in no way resisting this.”

The action Friday is not likely to delay study of the project; state, federal, and county agencies have been working on the proposal for several months, as part of a state effort to coordinate work on large industrial proposals. Federal environmental impacts will be the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has also been meeting with the joint study team.

Tyler Schroeder, the lead planner for Whatcom County on the Gateway project, requested "guidance and expertise on the elements of the environment that may have a statewide or regional impact, and that language was echoed in the response from Ted Sturdivant, director of the Department of Ecology: "I agree that there are statewide and regional issues that should be disclosed and addressed during the scoping and development of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Therefore, Ecology is willing to be a co-lead agency for the project. As we have discussed with your staff, Whatcom County will be the nominal lead and will handle the procedural aspects of SEPA compliance."

The language "statewide and regional" would at least by implication point to setting the scope of the environmental study to include off-site issues such as train traffic, air and water quality and health concerns, and potentially even the global issue of additional burning of coal and its impact on global warming. Environmental organizations have stressed the role of coal in global warming; it is anticipated that most of the Gateway Pacific Terminal exports would be coal from the Powder River Basin of Colorado and Montana, destined for coal plants in Asia, particularly in China, which has a voracious appetite for coal. The giant Peabody Coal Company, a major Powder River mining operator, has committed to exporting some 24 million tons a year from Gateway Pacific if the terminal is approved. Projected capacity is 54 million tons, of which 48 million tons are expected to be coal.

Bellingham Mayor Pike heralded the Ecology decision, calling it "appropriate and essential." The terminal issue is "a lot bigger than Whatcom County," he added, noting that it raises environmental and economic concerns all along the rail lines that will carry the coal. "This is what I've been hearing from mayors all across the state," Pike told Crosscut, referring to the letter that has been drafted urging the state to intervene.

Gateway Pacific has been working on the proposal for a year, and filed a preliminary application Feb. 28, which was the basis of the joint-agency team meetings that have taken place over the past several months. On June 10, two formal applications were filed, but Whatcom County rejected both as incomplete. The most serious issue was the shoreline-permit application, which was rejected on a number of major grounds; a major-project application, for the uplands part of the project, raised less-serious objections. Gateway Pacific has yet to file revised permit applications in either case.

When the revised applications are filed, the county and state will open a process known as "scoping," which will determine the boundaries to be studied. That is a key decision, because it will decide on any environmental reviews beyond the terminal site.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.