Coal Train, Part 3: Who gets to greenlight Bellingham's giant coal port?

Eight politicians, a few agency heads and an Army general will all weigh in, but the buck stops with one man.
Crosscut archive image.

Coal at a Canadian terminal awaiting shipment.

Eight politicians, a few agency heads and an Army general will all weigh in, but the buck stops with one man.

This is the last of a three-part series on the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

2015. That's the earliest we'll find out if Seattle-based SSA Marine gets to build a giant coal terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, the planned launch pad for shipping some 48 million tons of coal annually to Asian power plants and factories.

The stakes are high on all sides. Approval means billions of dollars for the port’s operator (SSA Marine), supplier (Peabody Coal) and shipper (Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway). It also means that citizens and municipalities near the terminal and along the shipping route will likely face health and livability issues, and the financial challenge associated with accommodating a boom in rail and ship traffic.

In this final installment of our three-part series on the Gateway Pacific process, we’ll look at who will make the final decision to build, or not to build Gateway.

Ultimately, eight elected officials, an Army general and several agency heads hold the fate of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Their decisions may also affect other proposed export terminals in the region. The three lead agencies—Whatcom County, Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—are already heavily involved in determining the scope of environmental review. When they set that scope, in perhaps two months time, specialists will take over the process. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) they produce, described earlier in this series, will trigger key decisions.

The first will come from the Whatcom County Council when it votes on two critical permits: a Shoreline Permit and a Substantial Development Permit. Permit applications were filed in March 2012 by a subsidiary of SSA Marine. Another permit, smaller in scope, would allow BNSF to build a short spur line to supply the Gateway terminal.

It’s nearly impossible to predict the outcome of the Whatcom County Council vote. By the time Gateway gets on the council’s agenda, all seven current members may be gone. Four are up for election in 2013; three in 2015. Those elections stand to produce intense political maneuvering and heightened public interest in the small Northwest Washington county. Councilmembers are elected on a bipartisan basis; annual salary is $23,493. The Council frequently divides on issues relating to growth, zoning and economic development, with Bellingham’s liberal base facing off against rural conservatives. In 2011, one council race was decided (in favor of the conservative candidate) by a mere 468 votes. SSA Marine has been canvassing the county for months, stressing the terminal’s jobs and tax benefits and pledging to be environmentally responsible. Terminal opponents have been busy building their own base.

Whatcom County’s decision-making process is complex, but a key role will be played by an appointed independent hearings examiner, who is hired on an annual contract. The position is currently held by Michael Bobbink.

The examiner is an intermediary between county's planning staff and the County Council. Bobbink will hold a public hearing on the options that emerge from the EIS process and send his recommendation to the Council. The Council can then refer his recommendation to the county's citizen Planning Commission for its recommendation, hold its own public hearings or make a final decision based on Bobbink's recommendation alone.

Any decision may be subject to appeal. If a Shoreline Permit is approved, for example, it may be appealed to the state’s Shoreline Hearings Board. There's no way to estimate how long the county process will take, but it threatens to overwhelm a small staff with limited experience in mega-projects like Gateway.

And Whatcom County approval is just a first step. Several state and federal agencies must also approve permits in their jurisdictions. The key deciders at this level are the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These agencies have already partnered with Whatcom County to conduct scoping meetings like the December 13th gathering in Seattle. They also oversee the work of the consultants who will handle the environmental studies.

The Corps of Engineers will take the lead on assessing environmental impacts to a 160-acre wetland that may be affected by the proposed coal storage and loading facilities, as well as any impacts from the terminal's docks and piers. The Corps is a sprawling military bureaucracy with an influential civilian engineering staff that will guide work in this area. Ultimately the generals will sign off, but politics may intrude. The Obama Administration’s Council on Environmental Quality has reportedly discussed the coal-export issue, and the president has ramped up his rhetoric around climate change. The administration may want to weight in on Gateway.

Federal politics could be even more interesting if former Gov. Chris Gregoire is named to head a federal agency involved in this decision. Reports have tied her to both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior, which controls coal leases. Directors of both high-profile agencies have recently resigned. Gregoire has friends on both sides of the Gateway issue. She gave early signals in favor of the project, then went silent on the issue during her last year in office. It’s unclear where she stands.

Her successor, Gov. Jay Inslee, figures to play an important role in the actions of the state’s Department of Ecology. Inslee named Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant to head his legislative affairs and policy shop. Inslee, who made a name for himself in Congress as an environmentalist and climate-change hawk, can make a statement about the Gateway project with his appointment to replace Sturdevant at Ecology.

In Spokane last week, Inslee said he will urge agencies to look at railroad traffic on a statewide basis as they examine the GPT application, rather than limiting the review to the terminal’s neighborhood only. He is talking with legal advisors to see if a study of climate change impacts can also fall within the purview of the Gateway EIS.

In a January 4 letter signed by Ted Sturdevant, Ecology asked the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Surface Transportation Board to consider area-wide impacts of a proposed new rail line in Montana. The Tongue River Railroad Co. has drawn sharp opposition from area ranchers and environmentalists. The line would open up new coal fields; the new coal would likely go to Asia via the Pacific Northwest. In his letter Sturdevant asked the federal agencies to examine the new rail line's impact on Washington State.

The state’s Department of Ecology oversees permits for water quality and storm water disposal. Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service (part of NOAA) must also approve permits. The little-known state agency, Archeology and Historic Preservation, weighs in on cultural issues and artifacts, extremely important when tribal concerns are at issue. Which they are with the Gateway terminal; the Lummi Nation argues that the project threatens its fishing grounds and a cultural site. Each of these agencies has its own process, and each may allow for public comments before granting (or denying) the necessary permits. An optimist would predict a final clearing of all permits by 2016, four years after initial applications were filed. 

But that’s not the end. One more approval is required. Perhaps the biggest hurdle—and the last—is getting Gateway by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. If Gateway can clear all the other hurdles, SSA Marine must still secure a lease to build its facility within the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, which was established in 2000.

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Goldmark alone makes this call, and there is no appeal short of the courts. The lease would be a “business lease,” which means it may not require a public process; business leases are typically negotiated. Goldmark updated the Reserve’s management plan in November 2010 shortly before the public learned that coal was the target export commodity at Cherry Point. The 181-page management plan doesn’t mention the word “coal.” But it is filled with strict measures to protect species and habitat in the Reserve.

Goldmark was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012 with support from both environmentalists and industry. Two companies associated with Gateway Pacific contributed to his 2012 campaign (SSA gave $1,800 via Pacific International Terminals; BNSF gave $500). Goldmark has carefully avoided comment on the terminal, but his staff is following developments and he has a representative on MAP, the multi-agency state team that is working on ways to streamline the permit process.

Goldmark’s approval is by no means guaranteed. But his refusal to issue the lease if all other agencies sign off on the Gateway Pacific Terminal would be a political action rivaled only by Gov. John Spellman’s 1982 veto of a legislative attempt to waive shoreline rules in order to permit a plant to build oil rigs at Cherry Point.

If the Gateway coal terminal gets as far as Goldmark, it will have survived one of the most-intense public examinations of a private development project in the region’s history. Regardless of the outcome, approval or rejection, the Gateway Pacific Terminal will leave its mark on the Pacific Northwest.


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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.