Gateway wetlands settlement expedient, going for cleanup

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 8, 2013 

Headlines are a funny thing. Sometimes, it's all we get a chance to read - the quick headline, the summary on the fly. Often, it's worth the extra time to get the whole story and to see that things are not quite as black and white as they may be portrayed. That's exactly the story with a lawsuit you may have read about lately. Our company, Pacific International Terminals, settled its suit with RE Sources, a local conservation group. If you look a little closer, you can see why, given the situation we found ourselves in, we felt the best thing for all concerned was to "settle" this suit. But what does it really mean to "settle"?

First, the facts. In July, 2011 our contractor initiated on-site work necessary to obtain geotechnical information required as part of the permitting and design process for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project. To provide temporary access to do the work on our 1,500-acre site, our contractor removed approximately 9.1 acres of brush and trees. Like much of western Washington, portions of our property include wetlands. Of the total impacted acreage, approximately 3.9 acres were in wetlands.

We thought we had the right permits to do the work. Once we discovered that we did not, we stopped work, took responsibility for the error, and immediately began working with the federal, state and local agencies to prepare an extensive restoration plan, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers subsequently found that the impact was "minimal." In fact, the Corps said the period of violation was "very minor," the impact on water quality was "slight," the expected duration of impacts was "short," and the violation was "likely not intentional." The county levied $2,000 in fines, which we promptly paid.

Meanwhile, in 2011, RE Sources, a Bellingham organization affiliated with Power Past Coal, filed a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act. Provisions of this act allow private parties to bring lawsuits to force federal and state agencies and other involved parties to react timely when disturbances occur. Since the agencies had alerted Pacific International Terminals to the wetlands violation and since Pacific International Terminals, together with the agencies, had taken immediate steps to develop an approved restoration and monitoring plan, the suit was unnecessary to force the agencies into action. But, as often happens in society, people and organizations use the law for their own political motive rather than its intended use.

Deciding to settle the RE Sources lawsuit was not easy. However, at the end of the day litigation is costly and time consuming. We are in the business of creating opportunity and jobs in the communities in which we operate, not litigating law suits. So, instead of spending money on attorney's fees during a trial we decided to put that money into something more beneficial to the public and the environment.

Pacific International Terminals requested and received approval that the $825,000 settlement amount go exclusively towards Puget Sound environmental restoration projects. We have made many investments over the years in cleaning up Puget Sound, but not as part of lawsuits. As one example, SSA Marine has spent over $16 million to clean up contamination caused by prior property owners at a site in Tacoma that we purchased. We have also converted terminal equipment from diesel to natural gas, and we have led efforts at ports throughout the country to reduce air and noise pollution. For actions like these, we have received numerous environmental awards from organizations such the Association of Washington Business and the Port of Long Beach.

Like I said in the beginning - the issue is not as simple as it might appear, but in the end, the people of Whatcom County will benefit from our decision to settle this "nuisance suit." And we have saved the court system a lot of time and effort.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob Watters is the senior vice president of SSA Marine, which plans to build Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point.

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