Coal port faces a new level of environmental scrutiny

The state will pursue environmental questions about a facility near Bellingham all the way to China.
Crosscut archive image.

The Cape Violet, a Capesize coal bulker built in 2009 and operating under Panamanian flag, recently stopped at Westshore Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C.

The state will pursue environmental questions about a facility near Bellingham all the way to China.


Both backers and critics of a massive coal-export terminal north of Bellingham used that term Wednesday as a scope of environmental review was announced by federal, state and Whatcom County officials. The results, which will include a look at greenhouse gases, rewarded a grassroots opposition campaign that ranged from the coalfields of Wyoming to the outer islands of Washington.

“This scope is a reflection of Northwest values – the depth and breadth of the scope is absolutely on target and appropriate given the impacts this project would have on our way of life,” said Cesia Kerns, director of the Power Past Coal coalition that fought the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) in public hearings across Washington.

“Today’s announcement represents an unprecedented treatment of rail and exports in Washington state and could have far-reaching repercussions that should concern anyone who cares about trade — of all kinds of products,” was the comment from the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, an umbrella group of terminal supporters, including major energy corporations.

The joint decision by Whatcom County planners and the Washington Department of Ecology amounted to a breathtaking victory for the thousands of terminal opponents who packed hearings across Washington and entered more thousands of comments, often with very specific scientific data dealing with air and water pollution, climate change and rail traffic. (Read the announcement here.)

Agency representatives cautioned that the broad scope of review is only preliminary to the decision-making process. As Crosscut explained earlier, that’s a complex and political process involving state, federal and local officials. Once the environmental review is completed in perhaps two years, agencies must act on several individual permits before the terminal can begin construction. But the breadth of the environmental study is staggering, and is not subject to legal appeal; the process of reviewing the terminal’s proposal is in place.

Most remarkable was the decision by the Washington Department of Ecology to include in its study the end-use of the 48 million tons of coal that would be shipped each year from the Gateway Pacific Terminal to the hungry furnaces of Asia. That decision could have national and even international repercussions on climate change.

Ecology will require “an evaluation and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions of end-use coal combustion.” That rewards climate-change speakers at seven public hearings, who urged agencies to examine the impact on this region of coal burned in China, which they say not only speeds global warming but also sends noxious emissions to the Pacific Northwest.

Two years ago, climate-change activist Bill McKibben addressed about a thousand people on a drizzly outdoor stage in Bellingham, calling on them to stop the export of coal. “If not here, where? If not now, when?” he challenged the group, which included leaders of the community’s “green” core.

Ecology also ordered a statewide assessment of the impact of added train traffic to serve GPT, 18 unit trains a mile and a half long would carry coal to the terminal and return empties to Wyoming. Whatcom County said it would target train impact on both Bellingham and Ferndale, a major victory for CommunityWise Bellingham, which has pressed for such a study. Ecology promised, “a detailed assessment of rail transportation on other representative communities in Washington and a general analysis of out-of-state rail impacts.” Communities across the BNSF rail line from Mount Vernon to Cheney have raised concerns about the added rail traffic and potential cost of building overpasses to mitigate the traffic. The terminal would generate 18 unit trains a mile and a half long each day.

Also included in the far-reaching scope determined by Ecology is assessment of cargo-ship operations beyond Washington waters; GPT would receive and load nearly a thousand ships a year, including the huge Capesize ships, the world’s largest bulk carriers. Residents of the San Juan Islands have demanded such a study and also examination of the impact of additional shipping on whales and other marine live in the Salish Sea and its islands. State agencies will review marine life.

Josh Baldi, regional Ecology administrator, said in a telephone news conference that state law permits such a broad review, but conceded that it may be unprecedented. He said Gov. Jay Inslee, who has called for a broad review, was not involved in the decision by Ecology, but had been briefed and was “comfortable” with the decision.

The Corps of Engineers revealed that it is monitoring efforts by GPT to negotiate with the Lummi Nation over the tribe’s concerns that ancient burial grounds will be inundated by coal piles and longtime tribal fishing grounds will be damaged if the terminal is built. If the Lummis are not satisfied with GPT’s offers to mitigate damages and the Corps is notified by the tribe of failure to reach an agreement, that could cause the Corps to “reassess its position,” said Muffy Walker, a regional Corps official. The Corps’ present position is to proceed with the environmental review, she explained, but tribal objections could put denial of a permit on the Corps’ table.

Walker’s statements were cautious, emphasizing that the tribe has considerable power in determining outcome of the terminal application, but any Corps decision is far in the future. In follow-up communication, the Corps pointed out legal decisions — including one involving the Lummis — that give the Corps broad power to deny permits that intrude on tribal rights.

The Corps operates under federal environmental laws, the county and state under state laws, which differ in some regards. The large engineering firm CH2M Hill has been retained to conduct the environmental review, expected to take up to two years. The results will go to agencies that must determine a number of permits before the terminal can begin construction. Whatcom County’s seven elected council members will decide on permits for project development and shoreline; if they are denied, the project dies. If they are approved, additional permits are required from the Corps and several state agencies, including Ecology.

SSA Marine of Seattle, which would operate the terminal, is already on the hook for more than $1.8 million under the agencies’ contract with CH2M Hill; additional millions will be involved when the company and its consultants begin the actual study of environmental review. All these costs are paid by the applicant.

It was a bad day overall for SSA Marine; earlier in the day, ReSources, which has opposed the terminal, announced it had settled its lawsuit against SSA Marine for filling wetlands on the site without a permit. SSA will pay $1.6 million in penalties and fees; the money goes to the nonprofit Rose Foundation, for Puget Sound restoration projects. ReSources receives no money.

Gateway Pacific Terminal, located on Cherry Point on the Georgia Strait north of Bellingham, would be a $664 million export terminal that is initially expected to export 48 million tons of Powder River Basin coal to Asia each year. The terminal’s maximum capacity is 54 million tons at completion. Peabody Coal and Cloud Peak Energy have contracted for 40 million tons of that capacity. Terminal backers have relied largely on economic arguments — jobs and tax benefits. Economic aspects of the terminals were not emphasized in Wednesday’s announcement, although they could become part of the studies.

Ecology’s Baldi made it clear that the pending Millennium Bulk Terminals project at Longview will be judged on its own merits, but some of the decisions announced Wednesday appeared sure to enter the Millennium decision. Eric dePlace, who studies the issue for the environmentally oriented nonprofit Sightline, wrote that the decisions were critical for the entire industry: “Now that public agencies will be tallying the manifest pollution, health, climate, and congestion impacts of Gateway Pacific coal terminal, there’s likely to be even more opposition to the proposals as the impacts become more widely understood. Plus, given more analysis and a wider exploration of the proposal’s problems, opponents will likely find abundant opportunities to litigate, which would of course create even more delay and uncertainty.”

Millennium, proposed by Ambre Energy, would export 44 million tons of coal a year, via the Columbia River for Asia. Five public hearings, from Spokane to Tacoma, open on Sept. 17. Cowlitz County joins Ecology and the Corps in examining the terminal. Another terminal is proposed in Oregon, involving rail-to-barge at Boardman on the Columbia for transshipment downriver to St. Helens, where it would be loaded on ships. The project is smaller, 8 million tons a year, and review has yet to begin.


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.