Bellingham coal port plan trips over new objections

A string of minor troubles may be snowballing into a large opportunity for opponents.

Crosscut archive image.

The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

A string of minor troubles may be snowballing into a large opportunity for opponents.

October is threatening to turn into a rough month for developers of a large shipping terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham. SSA Marine, which is proposing the exporting of some 48 million tons of coal a year plus 8 million tons of other commodities, continues to have problems because of an illegal tree-clearing operation in August.

RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, which has been leading the opposition to the coal exports, Monday announced intent to sue SSA Marine for violating the state's Clean Water Act. Last week, the State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation asked Whatcom County to delay issuing a ruling that SSA Marine had not significantly damaged the site when it removed the trees.

Whatcom County Planning and Development Services supervisor Tyler Schroeder ruled that SSA Marine must restore nine acres that it cleared for roads to do geotechnical work. The clearing violated earlier permits, the county said, but no moratorium on development would be imposed. Appeals to Schroeder's ruling will be accepted until Thursday (Oct. 6).

The case is much more serious than the nine acres that were cleared. If the county were to determine significant violation, it could be required to force a moratorium of six years on the developer's plans. That ruling could be overturned, but at the minimum it would result in more delays to a project already running months behind target.

State Archaeology's concern is that the site has buried artifacts dating as early as 3,500 years ago, relating to early settlements by Native American tribes in the region. The agency notes that area tribes — the Lummi and Nooksack nations are the principal ones — need to be involved in reviewing the findings.

RE Sources did not list specific objections relating to water quality, but the organization has been critical of the county for its ruling of non-significance; it has maintained that a work permit was issued for one land parcel while the clearance took place on a separate parcel. The organization noted that SSA Marine is being sued by Puget Soundkeeper Alliance for allegedly violating clean-water rules at Terminal 18 in Seattle.

Bob Watters, SSA Marine Senior Vice President responded, “RE Sources opposes further industrial development at Cherry Point in spite of the fact that Whatcom County shoreline and zoning ordinances have for decades designated it as the place for more good jobs." (RE Sources has stated it would accept a much smaller terminal, without coal.)

On the archeological question, an SSA spokesman noted recent on-site meetings with Lummi Nation representatives and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also has a role in permit approval. “We are doing what we are required to do within the law, and working with the agencies,” he noted.

Permitting pitfalls also derailed another coal terminal earlier this year at Longview. In that case, Millennium Bulk Terminals gained a shoreline permit from the Cowlitz County Commission, only to see it appealed to the state shoreline hearings board. Environmentalists used the appeal to pry open documents that showed Millennium officials planning to vastly increase the size of the coalport after they gained approval for the smaller port. Millennium withdrew its permit, the company president later resigned, and a follow-up permit has been promised but has yet to be filed.

The removal of scrub trees on nine acres of industrial land intended for the export of coal could turn out to be the same sort of mistake that Millennium made in Longview; it gives terminal opponents a host of areas to slow progress of the terminal. SSA Marine had carefully built alliances with local politicians and labor officials and hoped to be well along in its permitting process by this time. But its first application for a shoreline permit was refused by Whatcom County, saw the State Department of Ecology entered the scene as a co-leader with the county, and now SSA is forced to deal with its improper clearing of a small portion of its thousand-acre site.

In the case of both Longview and Cherry Point, the huge market for American coal on the part of China and other Asian customers plays as part of a global economy that could see other suppliers supplant the Pacific Northwest coal ports. Coal exports from Portland and Los Angeles foundered in the 1980s when the market changed, and, although demand is much higher today, the market continues to be volatile. Opponents will challenge whenever the exporters trip themselves, hoping delays could derail the proposals.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


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.