State and federal agencies have joined project opponents in calling for a wide-ranging review of potential impacts from the Gateway Pacific Terminal project that SSA Marine hopes to build at Whatcom County's Cherry Point.
SSA Marine and its allies have made it clear they would prefer an environmental impact statement that focuses on the immediate environs of the coal pier site itself, on industrial waterfront south of the BP Cherry Point Refinery.
Environmental groups fighting the coal terminal, as well as people concerned about health and traffic impacts from coal trains, have demanded a broader review. They want an analysis that includes air pollution and climate change impact from coal burning, as well as assessment of rail traffic impacts from Wyoming and Montana mines to Cherry Point.
The state and federal agencies weighing in during the 120-day comment period tend to agree with project opponents on how broad the study should be, although they do not join environmentalists in outright opposition.
On Monday, April 1, the three agencies responsible for developing an environmental impact statement on Gateway Pacific released a 140-page summary of the 125,000 public comments collected.
Those three agencies - U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology and Whatcom County Planning Department - must now agree on whether to order the preparation of the narrower study that Gateway Pacific backers prefer, or the sweeping analysis favored by opponents and most other agencies. They also could seek middle ground.
In releasing the comment summary, the agencies said it would make that key decision "in the near future," but there was no immediate clarity on what that means.
A sampling of comments from federal agencies:
- The U.S. Forest Service wants information on the impacts from increased rail traffic through the Columbia Gorge and federal forest lands, including fire dangers, noise, air quality and invasive species from passing trains.
- The National Marine Fisheries Service notes potential impact on salmon runs at rail crossings all along the route from the mines to Cherry Point. The agency also wants information on how the burning of Gateway Pacific coal would affect climate and ocean acidity, and suggests that SSA could compensate by reducing its other emissions, buying forest tracts for preservation or buying carbon credits.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants information on the cumulative impact of Gateway Pacific and other proposed coal ports.
- The National Park Service expresses concern about impacts on the visitor experience at parks from San Juan Islands National Historical Park to Glacier National Park, as well as concerns about climate change.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency argues that regulations require analysis of "reasonably foreseeable" impacts away from the terminal site. In EPA's view, those include health impacts from dust and diesel fumes, rail traffic all along the route to Cherry Point, and global air pollution and climate change from coal burning.
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calls for study of noise along the route, noting that the added train noise could disqualify some urban areas from eligibility for federal housing aid.
At the state level, the Washington Department of Commerce aligns itself with Gateway Pacific's backers on climate change issues. The Commerce letter from former director Rogers Weed asks that regulatory agencies not establish "new precedents under state law that would unduly burden a wide variety of future projects," and not allow this and other projects "to serve as proxies for bigger debates such as how best to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels."
Weed's letter also says the environmental impact statement should do a thorough job of adding up the economic benefits from the project.
But Commerce also calls for a wide-ranging review of possible negative impacts on property values near the rails, and the economic impact of rail crossing delays "for the Puget Sound region and beyond."
Weed's letter also suggests that public costs to improve those rail crossings should be subtracted from additions to public revenue in calculating benefits.
Weed, the Commerce director appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire, left office Feb. 1. Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Brian Bonlender, Inslee's former chief of staff in Congress, to replace Weed.
The Washington Department of Agriculture, whose former director Dan Newhouse had expressed some enthusiasm for Gateway Pacific as a possible export outlet for wheat, expresses misgivings in a comment letter over Newhouse's signature. The letter calls for an analysis of the project's impacts on rail traffic throughout the state, especially as increased demands on rail capacity might affect the availability of rail for crops that already rely on access to a share of that capacity.
Agriculture officials also want study of possible disruption of rail links to existing agricultural ports, and how changes in air and water quality could affect agriculture.
"A great deal of the proposed (rail) routes travel through prime Washington agricultural lands that grow crops sensitive to changes in air or water quality," Newhouse's letter says.
READ THE REPORT
The 140-page scoping report summarizing and categorizing the 125,000 comments on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project is online at eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/resources/scoping-report.
Reach JOHN STARK at email@example.com or call 715-2274.