Whatcom County and its state and federal partners announced Wednesday, July 31, that they will require a sweeping review of Gateway Pacific Terminal's environmental impacts - a significant victory for the coal terminal's opponents.
Among the impacts that will require study are greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning, traffic impacts from coal trains and human health impacts.
Matt Krogh, North Sound Baykeeper for Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said he was delighted by the decision to conduct a broad investigation of the coal terminal's impacts.
"The scope of this report is everything that I think we hoped for, and testament to the effort that over 100,000 people put in," Krogh said. "We're grateful that the state of Washington is willing to listen to what the people are concerned about."
Bob Watters, vice president of coal terminal proponent SSA Marine, said his company was disappointed by the regulators' decision but intends to keep on pursuing permits to build the export terminal. He said no other project in the state had ever been ordered to produce an environmental study of such broad scope.
"The state is setting new precedent with the broadness of this scope," Watters said in an email. "This potentially has negative impacts on Washington state's trade. ... It has potential negative impacts for future rail and infrastructure improvements required to support a vibrant and growing state economy."
Watters also said SSA expects to proceed with the environmental impact study process, which the company is required to pay for.
"We are glad the EIS will finally get underway and the science will soon be available to put to rest the erroneous claims made by those opposed to the project," Watters said.
Business and labor groups from around the state had joined SSA Marine in calling for an environmental impact statement that would be confined to direct effects of the terminal and rail operations in and around the SSA Marine property near Cherry Point at the end of Gulf Road.
But in a series of public meetings during fall 2012, environmental groups, Lummi Nation and thousands of citizens urged the regulatory agencies to study the impacts to human health, global climate, and railroad crossing blockages that could result if the coal terminal is built.
Gateway Pacific backers were encouraged a few weeks ago when a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official told a congressional committee that her agency would confine its analysis to narrower issues as federal permits for Gateway Pacific get environmental review. At that time, Washington Department of Ecology officials were quick to point out that state law gave them legal authority to require much broader analysis of the coal terminal's health and environmental impacts, on and off the terminal site.
Josh Baldi, Ecology's regional administrator, said his agency has decided to use the full extent of the state's authority, in consultation with Gov. Jay Inslee. He described Inslee as "comfortable" with Ecology's decision.
"State law discourages greenhouse gas emissions as well as coal power," Baldi said during a press conference.
Baldi added that the greenhouse gas emissions from burning Gateway Pacific coal shipments in Asia would exceed all the other greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state, combined.
Baldi acknowledged that the state has never required a greenhouse gas emissions study of this kind before, but he denied that the decision would set a precedent affecting other projects. He said environmental study requirements for new projects are determined case by case.
The thousands of public comments urging broad review helped to influence state officials' decision, Baldi said. Interested citizens, groups and government representatives submitted about 125,000 comments on the coal terminal and its potential impacts during a 121-day period in the fall and winter of 2012.
Tyler Schroeder, Whatcom County planning manager, said county officials would focus on impacts to the health and welfare of Whatcom County residents. Among other things, that will mean a detailed look at how the increase in rail traffic to serve Gateway Pacific would affect Bellingham, Ferndale and other communities along the rail line.
Gateway Pacific Terminal could handle as much as 48 million tons of Asia-bound U.S. coal per year. Combined with smaller quantities of other bulk cargoes, the terminal could generate 18 train trips per day through Bellingham and other cities along the rail line. That includes northbound loaded trains and returning empty trains.
The first draft of the environmental impact statement is expected to take about two years to complete. Once the draft is done, members of the public will get a chance to comment on it before it becomes final.
Baldi said the study's findings will inform the process of granting permits but will not dictate the outcome of that process. He also acknowledged that if the study finds that Gateway Pacific would cause negative impacts that cannot be overcome, Ecology would have legal authority to deny permits.