Coal Wars: How voters are shaping their leaders' decisions

Last year's elections brought bad news for promoters of coal exports through Northwest ports. But a vote this November could raise prospects for at least one proposed facility, near Bellingham.
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Activists gathered 40,000 signatures on an anti-coal petition to Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark

Last year's elections brought bad news for promoters of coal exports through Northwest ports. But a vote this November could raise prospects for at least one proposed facility, near Bellingham.

(Note: This is the conclusion of a three-part series)

"Elections have consequences.”  Numerous politicians

November 6, 2012 is an important — perhaps critical — date in the effort to build the nation’s largest coal-export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham. A final decision is still years away, but the 2012 election figures to play a huge role in how federal and state agencies approach their review of SSA Marine’s Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Nationally, voters rejected Republican Mitt Romney’s pro-coal campaign while Washington voters elected Gov. Jay Inslee, who made his congressional reputation as a climate-change expert. Those elections have consequences — one is climate change.

President Barack Obama and Govs. Inslee and John Kitzhaber of Oregon form a green line confronting backers of Northwest coal exports. Letters from federal and state agencies regarding the scope of environmental reviews for coal export plans indicate the officials got the memo; several agencies posted strong reservations about the project and others muted previous support.

Despite protestations of independence, public-agency regulators are attuned to the views of elected executives. The 2012 elections were not good news for those who trade in coal.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urged area-wide study of regional export terminals last year and its 2013 scoping comments suggested, “The (study) would appropriately include increases in regional train traffic and related air quality effects on human health, and the potential for effects to human health and the environment from increases in the long-range transportation of air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.”

New EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is unlikely to soften that comment; the reverse could have been expected from a Romney appointee. Observers look for the second Obama Administration to get tougher on climate-change. The pressure appears to be ratcheting up in the White House; Bloomberg News, which monitors the topic closely, reported last week that Obama “is preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects.” Coal-export terminals would fit that description; industry leaders are very concerned.

How deeply any shade of green penetrates into the inner soul of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is questionable, however. The Corps is a chain-of-command organization and the president is commander-in-chief; that said, the Corps has always carefully protected its turf and has never been described as “green.” The Corps is the lead federal agency on three Northwest export-terminal proposals and has sent mixed signals on how broad a study it will undertake.

The Corps, with Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Ecology, will release a summary of comments on the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT ) proposal soon, but determining the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement will be months later.

State-agency scoping comments reveal as much in what was unsaid as what was said. When Gateway Pacific Terminal surfaced in 2010, it appeared to have the support of Gov. Chris Gregoire, who had ties to some SSA Marine lobbyists. She did not join Kitzhaber in requesting an area-wide review and her directors of Agriculture and Commerce publicly promoted the terminal. Inslee, in recent remarks to Crosscut writers, promised to push for an area-wide study, including impacts on climate change.

State Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse is now calling for a statewide study of rail impacts on Washington farmlands and commodity shipments; his comments no longer promote GPT as a farm-export terminal. Commerce Director Rogers Weed, in an extensive and nuanced comment, rejects including climate change as a review subject and urges consideration of jobs and tax revenues — major points for GPT — but he also wants a wide examination of “externalities,” such as public costs of added train traffic and economic losses to rail-line communities.

Health Secretary Mary Selecky is calling for a separate Health Impact Assessment of an extensive list of medical concerns along the entire rail corridor within Washington. As with many commentators, she focuses primarily on rail transportation, including coal dust and diesel exhaust issues but also including noise and blockage of access for emergency vehicles.

A statewide look at the rail, ferry and highway impacts of adding 18 coal trains a day to the BNSF Railway system was urged by outgoing Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond. She was concerned about future capacity for agriculture, industry and other rail customers as well as Amtrak. Hammond has been replaced by Lynn Peterson, who was a sustainability advisor to Oregon’s Gov. Kitzhaber.

At least 19 city and county agencies commented, many hoping for public funds to deal with added rail traffic that might require costly overpasses and crossings. Edmonds, with a serious road-ferry-rail conflict, commented, “Now is the time to analyze the impacts of rail traffic growth on Cities that host BNSF rail lines. There may never be another opportunity to do so.” Overpasses and crossings can cost millions of taxpayer dollars apiece.

In addition to state and federal agencies with a special stake in the review process, two independent commentators have great leverage because of their special status. They are Native American nations asserting sovereign rights, and Washington Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who ultimately controls any lease of waters in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.

Native Americans expect government-to-government negotiations with the Corps and Ecology. The Lummi Nation cites damage to its traditional fishing grounds and the spiritual heritage of Cherry Point: “From the beginning of time the people who are now known as Lummi fished, hunted, gathered, lived, laughed, cried, died, and were buried at Cherry Point and the surrounding lands including the islands of Puget Sound.” Lummi leaders want a cultural district or Lummi Cemetery on the GPT site, and have talked about buying the land if the terminal is rejected.

Goldmark, in a detailed 14-page comment, called for a Salish Sea vessels study and expressed concern about shipping impacts on marine life, including an important herring fishery at the terminal site. Aquatic Reserve regulations would guide Goldmark’s decision if the project is approved and comes to his office for a lease.

The other key player in the final decision is Whatcom County, where an elected Council will vote on critical development permits. A large number of public comments came from constituents and with four of the seven councilmembers on the ballot this fall, Nov. 5, 2013 could be another of those game-changing elections. Elections actually do have consequences.

This is the last in a three-part series.


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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.