June 24, 2011

Will proposed bulk, coal terminal face narrow or broad environmental review?

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By Carolyn Nielsen and Andrew Donaldson

Western Washington University

BELLINGHAM – The proposed coal and bulk shipping terminal at Cherry Point faces a key decision –– expected Friday, June 24 –– as the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department decides whether to require the terminal’s proponents to obtain a new permit to build a pier northwest of Bellingham.

Pacific International Terminals,  a joint venture of Seattle-based SSA Marine and Vancouver, B.C.-based Westshore Terminals, Ltd., submitted its application June 10 for a 350-acre shipping terminal on land and a pier that extends into a newly designated  aquatic reserve.

The company asserts that it already has permission to build the pier because the county issued a permit for one in 1997.

Local and regional environmental advocacy groups are urging the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department to reject the application because the permit was approved under outdated environmental regulations.

A June 17 letter to the county planning department from the non-profit law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Climate Solutions, the Sierra Club and Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities accused proponents of trying to subvert updated environmental standards in constructing the first phase of the project, the pier.

Email petitions from RE Sources and Communitywise Bellingham circulated widely on Thursday, calling on Whatcom County residents to contact the planning department and speak out against accepting the application.

Environmental groups say the project needs a new permit under Whatcom County’s Shoreline Management Program standards adopted in 2008. The company has submitted a request for a “revision” of its 1992 shorelines permit, which was issued under less protective environmental regulations.

The 2008 rules require that any new construction in Cherry Point, already home to one aluminum smelter and two oil refinery piers, mean “no net loss” of habitat. In November 2010, the state designated a marine aquatic reserve at Cherry Point to help protect  spawning ground for the state’s largest, but struggling, stock of herring as well as birds and other aquatic life.

Earthjustice’s letter states that terminal proponents’ “approach to the Shoreline Permit in this important matter is neither lawful nor sensible” and requests that the county decline the permit application as incomplete. A whole new permit process, with extensive public engagement, is required, Earthjustice’s Jan Hasselman and Kristen Boyles argued.

The letter also points out that that 1997 permit covered grains, iron ore, potash, wood chips, sulphur and petroleum coke, but not coal, which is the proposed terminal’s primary commodity and the one that has created the most concern. As well, the previous permit was for 8 million tons of goods a year, but the current project seeks to ship 54 million tons of goods annually after it reaches full build out, which the company says is expected by 2026.

Earthjustice says that the increase in shipping amounts means more shipping traffic, more potential for spills and more potential for invasive species carried on ships to enter the aquatic reserve.

Coal dust from loading ships has caused “dead zones” at other shipping terminals, including one in B.C., Earthjustice’s letter says. SSA Marine spokesman Craig Cole said the conveyor belts used in the Cherry Point project would be covered and use state-of-the-art technology that was not available when older shipping terminals were built.

The aquatic reserve plan highlights ship ballast water as a particular threat to both birds and sea life. It cites concern for great blue heron and juvenile Dungeness crabs as “biological endpoints most likely to be at risk.” Diving birds and sea birds are also sources of concern in a 2004 studyby Western Washington University environmental scientists  Emily Hart Hayes and Wayne Landis.

The state Department of Natural Resources, which governs activity in the aquatic reserve, acknowledged the 1997 permit in its proposal to create the aquatic reserve, stating, “At present DNR is aware of two proposed land uses or modifications that may affect the reserve. A potential lease with . . . PIT. . . has been discussed, but as of December 2002 negotiations are on hold at PIT’s discretion. Negotiations for this project were initiated in 1992 and involve the potential construction of Gateway Pacific Terminal pier along the Cherry Point reach (between the northern most and middle existing piers). While this project is currently on-hold, extensive discussions, settlement agreements, and permitting steps have been undertaken and it seems likely this project will be reactivated at some point in the future.”

Should the county accept the shoreline permit application as complete, it does not mean a permit for the project has been granted, but it would allow the permit for the pier to go through the decision-making process based on whether it meets the less-rigorous standards. It also would allow the shoreline permitting process to go forward without further public engagement being required, Earthjustice says.

However, the rest of the project is covered by the Major Project Application and would still undergo review and environmental impact assessments.

Determining the scope of environmental impacts to study

If the county accepts the June 10 application, or if it requires the company to resubmit and seek a new shorelines permit, the next step in the process would be to determine the scope of study for potential environmental impacts.

Whatcom County plays the biggest role in defining that scope. Once the county puts forth a proposed scope of study, it opens the process to a 45- or 60-day period during which parties involved and the public can comment, Whatcom County Planning and Development Supervisor Tyler Schroeder said.

The company proposing the project then pays consultants to conduct the studies. Those studies identify impacts as significant, or not, and identify possible ways to mitigate for significant impacts. That evidence helps determine whether the county grants permits for the project.

The proposed pier is just under 5/8-mile long and connects to a nearly quarter-mile long in-water trestle. Construction of the terminal would also impact 140.6 acres of wetlands, according to the DNR's Joint Aquatic Resource Management Plan.

The on-site impacts are easier to quantify and the question is whether the project’s proponents are able to mitigate them by using less-invasive practices or by creating equal habitat elsewhere. The latter is more difficult to accomplish because there is often disagreement on whether the new habitat is truly of the same quality as the habitat impacted and meets the 2008 standard of “no net loss.”

Impacts extending off the site have been a major point of contention for the project’s opponents, who have argued that environmental impact studies should be more holistic and include railway impacts on Bellingham and communities to the south, the air pollution impacts of burning the coal for power in China and the impacts of mining coal in Montana’s Powder River Basin. Proponents of the terminal said only the development and operation of the terminal itself should be studied.

Whatcom County Special Projects Manager Roland Middleton, said ship traffic analysis, car traffic analysis, wetland analysis, greenhouse gas analysis, archeological and cultural concerns would be included in the scope, adding, “But we won’t make a final decision of course until we have a chance to hear from the people. Especially all of the communities involved that have an issue or concern with this project.”

Middleton said if there are issues that cannot be mitigated, that needs to be disclosed in the environmental impact statement EIS so the county can say, “OK, if we decide to approve this, this is what the impacts are going to be…. At that point they weigh the benefits verses the impacts and make a decision whether or not the project moves forward,” he said.

SSA Marine spokesman Cole said he expects the EIS process to cost $20 million and take two years.

Carolyn Nielsen is a professor of journalism at Western Washington University, where Andrew Donaldson is a  senior studying environmental journalism.

This story is part of a package produced by the students in the Journalism 450 class at Western Washington University. They were primarily edited by WWU Professor Carolyn Nielsen. InvestigateWest co-founder and senior environmental correspondent Robert McClure advised the students when they were partway through the reporting process, and helped prepare the final stories for publication. View the remaining elements of the package here.

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