Work on proposed coal port site near Bellingham surprises official

A large corporation says it thought a 1997 permit covered its grading of property where it wants to build a port for sending coal to China. Opponents and an elected official say they are surprised.

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The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

A large corporation says it thought a 1997 permit covered its grading of property where it wants to build a port for sending coal to China. Opponents and an elected official say they are surprised.

SSA Marine, the corporation proposing to build a huge coal-shipping terminal near Bellingham, was scrambling at the end of the week to explain how a series of roads got built through sensitive woodlands at the site of the proposed terminal.

The company has not officially applied for the state and federal permits, and the required environmental impact studies have not begun.  An attorney for SSA, William Lynn, said Friday (July 29) that the roads are not part of any terminal construction activity, but are required to allow geotechnical equipment on the site.  He said there was confusion and disagreement within the Whatcom County Department of Planning on the validity of a Shoreline Development permit issued to SSA 1997, which would have allowed the geotechnical exploration.

“They (the geotechnical consultants) thought they were operating under the permit that we were given,” Lynn told Crosscut. “These aren’t permanent roads at all, they’re just temporary access routes so we can determine what’s under the ground. You can’t develop a project of this kind without knowing the nature of the soils you’re building on.”

SSA still believes that the exploratory drilling and the road building that comes with it are covered by the 1997 permit, Lynn said. But they have stopped the work until they can meet with county officials in a few days and work out the terms.

Whatcom County Council member Carl Weimer publicized the road building operation on his blog, with pictures of the grading work. Weimer said he came across the grading work while walking his dog on the SSA property at Cherry Point, an environmentally sensitive stretch of shoreline about a dozen miles north of Bellingham.  Weimer photographed the roads and called Whatcom County planning officials. He says the county ordered the roadwork to stop.

The Natural Resources director for Whatcom County, Wayne Fitch, told Crosscut Friday that the roads  — including some grading of wetlands — were built without a current permit. “They thought they were covered under an old one,” Fitch said.

When Whatcom County granted the 1997 permit, SSA’s project was described as a terminal designed for shipping 8 million tons of grain, fertilizer, and other assorted cargoes. Since then, the project has been changed to accommodate 48 million metric tons of coal per year, to be moved by rail from Montana and Wyoming, across Washington to Cherry Point and by ship to Asia.

The validity of the 1997 permit became a serious issue in June, when SSA argued that it should be allowed to develop the terminal by simply revising the terms of the 1997 permit. Whatcom County Planning Director Sam Ryan ruled that the company had to apply for a new permit, which it has yet to do.

Ryan was out of town Friday and couldn't be reached for comment on the earth-moving work that’s been done at the site, which Councilmember Weimer estimates at two to two-and-a-half miles, covering more than four acres. 

The terminal poject has become hotly controversial in the past few months, as a number of citizens groups and elected officials lined up to question it. Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike officially opposes it, and the mayors of Seattle, Edmonds, Marysville, and Spokane have cautioned against the impact of frequent and long coal trains traveling through their cities.

Leading the opposition is a Bellingham group Re Sources for Sustainable Communities. A spokesman for Re Sources, Matt Krogh, rejected SSA's and County Planning explanations for the grading at the site:  “The scope of these miles of clearcut corridors hidden deep within their property, including four to five acres of wetlands, makes it look like these guys are starting construction early and without a permit, and that’s not okay.”

The terminal proposal has strong Whatcom County support outside of Bellingham. The Whatcom County Labor Council, Chamber of Commerce, and mayors of the smaller cities in Whatcom County have endorsed it, citing the company’s promises of 2,000 or more construction jobs and more than 200 permanent longshore jobs once the coal export is under way.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.