Bellingham coal port developer: 'Mistakes were made'

SSA Marine has reversed its earlier position suggesting that Whatcom County regulators bore the blame for the company's non-permitted work on Cherry Point wetlands.

SSA Marine has reversed its earlier position suggesting that Whatcom County regulators bore the blame for the company's non-permitted work on Cherry Point wetlands.

In classic backtracking language, the world’s largest builder and operator of seaports, said today (Aug. 3)  that its “standards were not met” in exploratory work at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. As Crosscut reported last week, SSA Marine graded roads through a wetland area where it proposes to build North America’s largest coal shipping terminal, to export high plains coal to China.

The company’s earlier statements had suggested that Whatcom County planning staff misled SSA into thinking it had permission to do the work. But in a news release issued Wednesday, the company acknowledges a “breakdown between what our managers expected and what our contractors did on the ground. But ultimately we are the responsible party.”

The fuss might not have amounted to much, except Whatcom County Councilmember Carl Weimer took his dog for a walk at the site of the proposed coal terminal. He discovered some two miles of roads, freshly graded through wetland areas on SSA property near the sensitive and historically disputed Cherry Point shoreline. Weimer checked with Whatcom County planning staff and found that they had issued no permit for the work. SSA hadn’t even applied for one. Weimer also photographed the grading work and posted it on his blog.

On Monday, SSA vice president Bob Watters said county staff had led the company and its geotechnical researchers to believe that an earlier permit, issued in 1992, was still in effect. Planning Director Sam Ryan had issued an announcement, however, that seemed to make clear that the older permit was invalid and that SSA would need to apply for a new one before it could get serious about building the terminal.

County officials issued the earlier permit when the Gateway Pacific Terminal was described as a multi-cargo port that would ship some 8 million metric tons per year of grain, fertilizers, and other commodities. In January of this year, the company disclosed that it would also ship some 48 million metric tons of Montana and Wyoming coal to China. SSA Marine wanted to proceed on the basis of a revised version of the older permit, rather than start the process anew.

Watters told Crosscut early this week that the grading of the wetlands, which the company now says was a mistake, was essential for bringing in heavy equipment for sub-surface soil testing. He said that what Weimer called roads weren’t really roads, just “surface access points” that were exempted from permit requirements in the earlier permit, which the company thought to be still in force.

SSA changed its position following stories that quoted an angry County Executive Pete Kremen. Kremen told KING-5 reporter Jake Wittenberg, “For them to disregard our regulations on something this important just amazes me.” He said the county and state could impose fines for the destruction of the wetlands.

The new statement from SSA Marine offers a study in ambiguous apology. Nowhere does the word “apologize” appear, nor “we’re sorry. ” The news release says that “mistakes were made,” the classic avoidance of “we made a mistake.”

It could serve as a business school model for corporate mea culpa: lots of culpa but little mea.


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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.