Coal terminal environmental meeting in Bellingham likely to draw huge crowd

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 24, 2012 

BELLINGHAM - Backers and opponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier are trying to rally their faithful for Saturday's public meeting on the project, even though the government agencies convening the meeting insist that gauging public sentiment is not the point.

The meeting - scheduled for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, at Squalicum High School - is formally known as a "scoping meeting." Its purpose is to collect public comment on what environmental and economic impacts of the Gateway Pacific project ought to be evaluated during the preparation of an environmental impact statement, which could take two years.

People who oppose the project want the environmental study to include a wide range of possible ills, including increased rail traffic, global climate change, harm to fisheries, and potential negative impacts on tourism.

Proponents say it would be unfair to define the project's impact in such broad terms. They also want to make sure that the economic benefits of jobs and tax revenues are given full credit.

The terminal proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle could be operating by 2017 if it wins regulatory approval. It could export 54 million tons of bulk commodities a year, including 48 million tons of coal, to markets in Asia.

Backers say it would generate millions in tax revenue, thousands of short-term construction jobs and more than 1,000 direct and indirect permanent jobs.

Tyler Schroeder, planning manager with the Whatcom County Planning Department, said people need not attend the meeting to be heard on those issues. Thousands of comments already have been offered via email, and those comments receive just as much weight as anything that will be said in front of a microphone.

Schroeder said the county and other agencies involved - Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - are aware that many people want to have that public testimony experience, and there should be time for about 200 people to do so during the four-hour session. There will be two public comment areas: the 1,000-seat gym and a 400-seat auditorium. With comments limited to two minutes, organizers expect about 100 people will be able to testify at both those venues.

Interested people also will have the option of offering spoken comment in a smaller room with no audience, where three stations will be set up to record their comments, also subject to a two-minute limit. There will also be an area where people can write and submit comments.

Agency staffers also will be on hand to answer questions.

Some time after the series of seven scoping meetings conclude with a final Dec. 12 session in Vancouver, Wash., Schroeder said the agencies will issue a public report that will spell out the agencies' decision on key scoping questions. There won't be any opportunity for additional comment on scoping issues at that point.

But Schroeder noted there will be more opportunities for written and spoken public testimony once the draft environmental impact statement is released. People will be able to re-argue scoping questions at that point if they choose, and can challenge the validity of the document's findings, including the key question of how the project proponents could take steps to compensate for economic and environmental damage their project has been found to cause.

The agencies overseeing the process will have to respond to those comments in the final document, and could decide to add issues to the study's scope if a strong enough case can be made for doing so.

Then - assuming SSA Marine presses ahead to seek permits from Whatcom County - there would be more public hearings before the County Council, Schroeder said.

Matt Krogh, a coal export opponent who tracks the issue for RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said it's important for Saturday's meeting to have a big turnout.

"Hearing from each other, hearing from citizens who have very real concerns, is an important step," he said.

Shannon Wright, executive director of Communitywise Bellingham, said it was too bad that only 200 people will have a chance to speak at Saturday's meeting, even though they can still offer written comment.

"I think for many people there is a value in being able to offer a verbal comment," Wright said. "It feels more substantial. ... There is also a feeling of having fully participated."

Schroeder said he's doing his best to get through the thousands of written comments already submitted, and promised to give them equal weight with verbal testimony.

"We want to make sure we hear from as many people as we can," he said. "Some people don't want to speak publicly. ... At the end of the (process), I will absolutely know each issue surrounding it."

TAKE OUR POLL

GO TO A MEETING

Two of seven "scoping meetings" for Gateway Pacific Terminal will be in Whatcom County:

- 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, at Squalicum High School, 3773 E. McLeod Road, Bellingham.

- 3 to 7 p.m. Nov. 29 at Ferndale Events Center, 5715 Barrett Road.

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Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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