Epic Northwest battle: Defining how big a deal coal ports are

The state has never seen an environmental review take comments from so much of the state. And unexpectedly large numbers of people are showing up to oppose shipping coal for burning in China.
Crosscut archive image.

In Bellingham, retired railway conductor Don Frenzel addresses an environmental scoping panel, from left: Randel Perry, Tyler Schroeder, Alice Kelly.

The state has never seen an environmental review take comments from so much of the state. And unexpectedly large numbers of people are showing up to oppose shipping coal for burning in China.

It is being called “unprecedented” but it seems to be rolling out as its authors had intended, perhaps the biggest experiment in environmental democracy the Northwest has ever seen.

That would be the “scoping” process to determine what effects the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal north of Bellingham would have on the region’s environment and economy.

When the process finishes on Jan. 21, it will have included public meetings in seven Washington cities, heard from citizens in at least five states and compiled thousands of opinions that three agencies must review to determine what will be studied in an environmental review that will last more than a year.

It is very serious business, not only for SSA Marine of Seattle, which proposes the terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, but for opponents who cite environmental dangers from the terminal’s major export, coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The coal would be transported to Cherry Point by some 18 BNSF trains (both full and empty returns) each nearly a mile-and-a-half long, and then to Asia in huge bulk-container ships, adding a thousand voyages a year to shipping lanes through the San Juan Islands.

The “scoping” meetings pick up on the opposition side of the debate; testimony at the first three sessions — Bellingham, Friday Harbor and Mount Vernon — brought out large and one-sided audiences. Attendance at the three meetings reached 3,500 and 980 people spoke or wrote comments, officials said.

Speakers overwhelmingly don’t want the terminal, fearing environmental consequences and taxpayer burdens to alleviate the problems brought by added rail and ship traffic. The opposition speakers ranged from Native American leaders to retired scientists, organic farmers, commercial fishermen and birders.

SSA and its industry supporters were largely absent from the hearings. The reason is quite simple: supporters of the terminal have one simple demand at this point in the process: keep the environmental studies limited if possible to the terminal site itself and the six-mile rail spur that will serve the terminal. They will file that position to the permitting agencies and it is probably counter-productive to keep repeating it at the opposition-dominated public meetings, although a handful of supporters spoke at each session.

Supporters of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would also ship some other commodities in addition to coal, are particularly worried that officials will decide to combine all or some of the proposed export-terminal applications into a single overview that would cover most of the region. “It is our belief that the impacts, both positive and negative, of this project should be looked at solely as they pertain to the (Gateway Pacific Terminal) proposal and should not include impacts of other proposed dry bulk facilities in other parts of the region,” said Ken Oplinger, president of Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, in a letter to agency officials.

Whether the environment review will be combined with other coal port plans — primarily the proposed Millennium terminal at Longview, which is also beginning its review process — is not likely to be decided while the Gateway Pacific scoping is under way. But it is possible, says Randel Perry, lead scoping official for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Perry told Crosscut that an “area-wide environmental impact study” might be considered, involving similar actions or proposals within a geographic area. The idea of multiple coal-export terminals might meet that standard for such a study, he suggested, without making any prediction as to its likelihood.

If an area-wide study were to be proposed by the lead agencies after the scoping process is completed, Perry said the call would be “decided at the top level of the Corps,” rather than locally.

Talks have also been held at top levels of the Obama Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency has asked the Corps to conduct an area-wide study. Such action would be opposed by all the terminal proponents but is highly sought-after by terminal critics. The Corps told Bloomberg BNA reporter Paul Shukovsky that 30,000 letters have been received on one coal-port proposal, including several from top agency or elected officials. Among those was one from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who wrote about the value of a wider environmental review. At top levels of the Obama Administration, Shukovsky reported in his article, which appeared before the election, “The White House Council on Environmental Quality convened a meeting of senior agency staff in August to discuss the proposals, which come in the midst of a presidential campaign in which Republicans and business groups have tried to focus attention on what they assert is the Obama administration's 'war on coal.' "

If it is expanded — and the Corps appears reluctant to do so — the environmental study could be under the auspices of any federal agency with an interest in the review. Congress would have the power to intervene, subject to presidential veto. Two decades ago, a plan by Chicago Bridge and Iron at Cherry Point prompted the Washington Legislature to enact a law suspending shoreline protection in order to allow oil-drilling rigs to be assembled; Gov. John Spellman vetoed the act. Congressional Republicans have made efforts to force President Obama to approve the Keystone Pipeline.

Is Gateway Pacific Terminal in that league? Clearly it is of more importance than Chicago Bridge and Iron because of its principal commodity — coal is a trigger-word for climate-change activists and rail and ship traffic for Gateway would dwarf that of Chicago Bridge. It may more closely resemble an aboveground Keystone pipeline — coal trains would cross four or five states and any impact on Salish Sea marine life could affect two nations. Canada is already sending nearly 5,000 commercial ships a year (loaded and empty, tankers, bulkers and container ships) through Washington’s waters. The terminal would add nearly 1,000 more.

A cumulative study could take into consideration the existing rail and ship traffic plus the 48-million tons of coal annually from Gateway Pacific and the 44-million tons from the proposed Millennium project at Longview. The scoping process for Millennium is about to begin with the Corps, Cowlitz County, and Ecology as partners in the study. If a decision were made for an area-wide study, the Whatcom and Cowlitz terminals could be morphed into a single review, perhaps along with three smaller proposals in Oregon.

The size of the turnouts and the breadth and passion of the speakers has already caused a schedule change. A Seattle hearing, set for Nov. 13 at North Seattle Community College, has been moved to Dec. 13 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, a much larger venue. An Ecology official said 3,000 people can be accommodated there. Agencies were concerned that the community college venue, with room for about 1,000 people, could not deal with the larger crowds they now expect.

Opponents of coal exports waved signs and banners and many stood for over an hour in a rainstorm to pack a Bellingham gym and auditorium on Oct. 27 with about 2,000 damp bodies. In Friday Harbor on Nov. 3 the San Juan Islands’ unique mix of funky and profound saw a man in a seal mask, a rap song, a poem, and an excited Chinese student who described dire effects of burning coal in her home country.

These unique comments were quickly followed by a host of marine scientists with very specific subjects that should be studied, and ship and ferry officers with warnings about “constrained waters with many hazards” in the shipping channels of Haro and Rosario straits, as described by retired ferry captain Ken Burtness of Lopez Island. “We put too much in and we take too much out,” said retired marine biologist M. Patricia Morse; she listed a host of marine species that would be devastated by coal spill on the floor of Haro Strait. “Almost all San Juan jobs are ocean-related,” she reminded officials.

Native American leaders testified at Bellingham and Friday Harbor. Lummi Nation spokesman Jay Julius led off the Bellingham testimony. "Science is respected by our nation, but we have our own knowledge and teaching," Julius said. "Lummi Nation says no . . . I am personally a fisherman as my great-great-great-grandparents were fishermen ... long before the arrival of science." Julius told officials from the Corps, Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Ecology, the three co-lead agencies on the environmental review, "I would like to encourage a spiritual or soul study to be done ... to study the impacts that this will have on our people," 

At Mount Vernon, which is bisected by BNSF tracks, officials on Nov. 5 expected fewer than 500 at McIntyre Hall; nearly 1,000 showed up, overflowing the theater.

As the three meetings progressed, so did the focus of speakers. In Bellingham, speakers often appeared to be letting off steam from the long buildup to the meetings; their passion was followed by somewhat generic opposition. But Friday Harbor zeroed in on marine issues and testimony was pointed and specific as to what must be studied. Mount Vernon brought a broader range of topics but speakers were very focused and concise, whether they were concerned about trains (most were) or impacts on farm and fishing occupations and the reviving downtowns of Mount Vernon and Stanwood. Several homeowners told vivid accounts of the impact of long and heavy coal trains already running adjacent to their homes in limited numbers to a British Columbia export facility.

The Mount Vernon testimony also opened up the greater issue of regional livability, central to much concern but difficult to scientifically study. Many speakers called for a regional study that would include livability and impacts on small towns along the rail route. For these towns, said Mount Vernon physician Jerry Eisner, “there’s no positives; there won’t be any jobs here. This is a thousand-mile, 24-hour-a-day slap in the face. In your hands the Northwest lies. Are you going to participate in the destruction of the last corner where there are rivers, salmon?"

The task (among many) for officials of the three agencies will be how to deal with the concerns of people like Eisner in a manner acceptable to the scientific and technical boundaries of an environmental assessment process.

Unlike the typical public hearing, the scoping sessions were almost devoid of elected officials: Three county council members from San Juan County and a port commissioner spoke in Friday Harbor, but no public official spoke in Bellingham and only one in Mount Vernon. That was not accidental; although everyone was encouraged to offer views, agency officials were clearly looking for citizen testimony.

They got what they wanted, and appeared pleased with the outcome. We discussed the process with Perry of the Corps, Tyler Schroeder of Whatcom County and Jeannie Summerhays, who partnered with Alice Kelly for Ecology. It was Summerhays who suggested “unprecedented” to describe this scoping exercise, and Perry and Schroeder agreed. It is without precedent, they noted, to hold seven scoping sessions in such a wide area — from Spokane to Seattle and from Vancouver to Friday Harboy — and the turnout is totally unprecedented. A big public meeting for Ecology, Summerhays noted, would be in the hundreds. The first three meetings drew about 3,500 people.

The format for the meetings — sponsors insist they are not “hearings” that typically address elected officials — offers three ways people can express views: the traditional large-group setting with a microphone for two-minute comments, tables where individual comments may be given to an agency representative, and tables where people may write comments. Large display boards with information circle one room, with agency representatives to answer questions — at all thee hearings there were plenty of questions.

Crosscut archive image.

Part of the crowd in Bellingham

Photo by Floyd McKay

Officials counted 2,000 people in two Bellingham auditoriums, and after four hours 400 people had their say in verbal or written comments. At the three-hour session in Friday Harbor, about 500 people came and 280 made verbal or written comments. In Mount Vernon, nearly 1,000 attended and 300 entered verbal or written comments.

Most participants seemed to prefer the large-audience format; people did utilize the one-on-one and written opportunities, but clearly it was the chance to present and to hear public testimony that drew most of the crowd and kept it engaged for up to four hours.

Testimony was overwhelmingly against the terminal or, at the minimum, calling for environmental review of a host of consequences. Railroad traffic and marine issues appeared to be on the minds of most of the speakers. Ecology is trying to keep up with the flood of comments and is posting them on its website; as of early last week, more than 2,100 comments had been posted; you can read them here.

At times the testimony was emotional: an elderly Bellingham woman broke down in tears as she related coming to the meeting to support the terminal because her grandson needs a job, but after listening to speakers she changed course, fearing damage to the community. Another woman turned on a tape recording of a coal train passing near her house. A Lummi Nation woman asked for the audience to keep a minute’s silence for “all we are killing.” A Ferndale man uncorked a bottle and pulled out a “note from an Orca.”

Terminal supporters, although vastly outnumbered, were represented by several young men who waved signs proclaiming “Power Past Fear-Mongering: Support Progress,” a play on words of the “Power Past Coal” signs waved by their opponents. Dialogue was respectful on all sides and the terminal-support group engaged some of their opponents in discussion on the sidelines. Three Bellingham union members spoke in Mount Vernon for jobs for their members.

There’s a lot of money on the table. SSA is the nation’s largest terminal operator and it’s 49 percent owned by a Goldman Sachs unit, Peabody Coal is the largest coal operator in the nation and is already committed to half of GPT’s capacity, and BNSF is a leader in a nationwide industry where 40 percent of the cargo is coal. Construction and longshore unions hope to pick up thousands of permanent or temporary jobs, and several taxing jurisdictions are looking for thousands in payments if the terminal is built.

A coalition of deep-pocket industries reportedly spent $866,000 in September alone on television spots in Oregon and Washington. Lauri Hennessey, who manages the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports account at the Edelman public-relations agency, declined to comment on how much is being spent in order to counter opposition that she termed “extreme” and not representative of how most people view the coal terminals. “We would just say that the ads feature real workers and families who care about these projects and who want them to happen – and we have not been short on volunteers,” she added.

When all seven “meetings” conclude on Jan. 21, a weary cadre of listeners will finish the job of reviewing the thousands of comments from the meetings and written testimony. They are looking for what should be studied, not simply statements for or against the Gateway Pacific project. Preparation sessions sponsored by opponents have stressed the need to ask for specific areas of study, and by the time of the second meeting it appeared most speakers were heeding the instructions. “All comments will be considered,” The Corps’ Perry stressed, “there is no difference in weight.” That said, focused comments, particularly ones that raise a new topic of concern, appeared to draw more attention from the panel.

Participants seemed pleased with the format. Leaders of the Orcas NO COALition may represent others' thinking with its comments on the Orcas Issues online news site: “We don’t know if our comments will make a difference as this process grinds forward, but we’re hopeful. Our spontaneous and extended standing ovation at the end of the hearing, to thank agency personnel for coming to listen to our concerns, sent a powerful message. As noted by a Lummi tribal leader recently, we’re all in this boat together, rowing the same direction. Indeed.”

Terminal backers are philosophic about a process they would not have designed. Bob Watters, senior vice president at SSA Marine, attended all three sessions; at their conclusion he commented: “The scoping process has been very informative. While I expect it will strengthen the EIS, the process also illustrates there are a lot of concerns that we think are not grounded in fact. We have always wanted a thorough, science-based evaluation of our project, not only to settle questions people have, but also to serve as the basis for insuring that the Gateway Pacific Terminal meets our state’s high environmental standards.”

The scope of the environmental review will be set in early 2013, and the review itself won’t be completed until sometime in 2014. Then a draft statement will be issued — followed by hearings this time, more formal than the “meetings”. More precedents may ensue.


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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.