Wetlands destruction breaks trust with community on development


After a year-and-a-half legal battle, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities entered a settlement with SSA-owned Pacific International Terminals for their illegal filling of 1.2 acres of wetlands at Cherry Point. As part of the settlement, Pacific International Terminals will pay $1.6 million in penalties and fees including $825,000 to the Rose Foundation for restoration projects to benefit the Puget Sound and straits. The remainder of the money will be paid directly to attorneys for fees and costs associated with this case. RE Sources receives no money from the settlement.

The case began in 2011 when SSA violated the Clean Water Act and ignored local, state and national permitting requirements by building nearly 5 miles of roads, destroying 2.5 acres of wetlands and bulldozing and drilling in a registered Lummi historical area known to contain burial sites.

This flagrant destruction of wetlands was part of a larger unauthorized geotechnical investigation project, sanctioned by SSA on their property currently planned for the Gateway Pacific coal terminal. The data gathered by this geotechnical investigation furthers the project planning and design.

Why would SSA break the law and try to deceive the good citizens of Whatcom County during a time that public trust is paramount to their project's success? Because it made good financial sense. When dealing with an economically unstable commodity like coal, a few years can make a big difference in the profitability of a project. The information gained will help SSA expedite their proposal by allowing them to design their coal port without having to wait for the time consuming permit review process.

Please don't take my word for it. We asked a leading national expert on large-scale construction project management, Philip S. Lanterman, to give his take on the evidence. After conducting an in-depth analysis, Lanterman stated "in my opinion, it is probable that [SSA-owned] PIT intentionally chose to proceed with the geotechnical investigation without necessary permits to obtain the expected economic benefit of securing the geotechnical information early in the project timeline, and PIT has actually received such benefit."

Lanterman further writes, "PIT's efforts to ensure legal compliance of the geotechnical investigation were so far below the standard of care that, in my opinion, they evidence extreme recklessness as to legal compliance or, more likely, an intentional violation of the law."

We also asked Ari Steinberg, SSA's project manager for the Gateway Pacific coal port, who is also managing two other major port developments for SSA, to explain how a business with decades of experience developing marine port facilities could simply fail to obtain the necessary permits before conducting this work. His answer: "I don't recall."

Steinberg goes on to answer "I do not recall" to 39 more direct questions about the violations, the wetlands, the archaeologically sensitive areas that were disturbed, who authorized the work, Pacific International Terminals' permit tracking process and more. Even Pacific International Terminals' own wetlands consultant testified that she was "appalled" by the destruction Pacific International Terminals caused. What does this say about Pacific International Terminals' leadership, their attention to detail and the way they will conduct themselves if allowed to build and operate a huge coal terminal in Whatcom County?

When SSA can't (or won't) comply with basic permitting requirements, how can we trust them with the complex responsibility necessary to protect human health, the Puget Sound, and the resources on which our community relies?


Crina Hoyer is the executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities in Bellingham. RE Sources promotes sustainable communities and the health of local people and ecosystems through science, education, advocacy and action. More information can be found online at re-sources.org.

The RE Sources web link was corrected Aug. 9, 2013.

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