Expanded environmental impact study will show overall impacts of coal

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 17, 2013 

Washington's citizens won a huge victory last week when the Department of Ecology announced its intention to assess a broad range of impacts in the Gateway Pacific coal terminal proposal's environmental impact statement. Predicted to be completed in the next two years, the report will be the primary source of information for decision makers at all levels, including the Whatcom County Council, who will decide whether or not to permit this project.

Additionally, the information contained in the environmental report will give the community a complete picture of the potential harm that this project would cause to our lifestyles, our health, our commerce, our water and our climate. When it is complete, the report will prove what we have been saying all along, "We can do better than coal." Most environmental impact statements consider a very narrow scope of impacts, and despite the Army Corps of Engineers' efforts to limit the scope to the project site alone, the Department of Ecology decided to include broader impacts such as climate change, ocean acidification, congestion from rail traffic, oil spill risks and more. Why? Because tremendous grassroots pressure and strong state leadership allowed them the political cover to do so.

The public spoke and our leaders listened. Because the citizens of Washington came out in droves and took a stand, the scope of the report will make an unprecedented analysis of the substantial combined impacts of this massive and potentially damaging project. Even though the amount of coal anticipated to pass through Gateway Pacific Terminal annually would cause more climate and ocean acidification impacts than all human-related activity in the state of Washington combined, these would not have been studied without public pressure.

It has been a tough fight to get the environmental impact statement scope to where it is, but Ecology's decision is a victory for all those who are working toward a common sense resolution. Because we face an impending climate crisis this is exactly the kind of decision we should expect from our leadership - elected officials like Gov. Inslee, Reps. Lytton and Morris, Sens. Ranker and Carlyle - who understand our predicament.

What is it these elected officials understand?

Our oyster growers are moving operations away from Washington because increasing ocean acidification means oyster seedlings can't grow. That's a loss of jobs. Ocean acidification will now be studied in the Gateway environmental impact statement. Whatcom-based fishing fleets are already seeing shrinking fish runs and loss of habitat from climate change. Tribal and nontribal fleets represent thousands of jobs locally in fishing and seafood processing. The report will look at how climate change contributions from the Gateway coal terminal will impact these jobs and our dwindling fishing runs.

And the mercury that blows back to us across the Pacific after the coal is burned? That will be studied, too. These leaders understand that communities all along the rail line would have to deal with congestion from a tremendous increase in train traffic resulting in impacts to emergency response times, air quality, noise and more. The cost of necessary improvements to the rail infrastructure would be in the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars, and would be borne by the taxpayer. Thanks to this decision, the environmental impact statement will look at the cumulative rail impacts in Washington, Idaho and Montana.

A giant spike in coal bulk carrier vessels means an increased risk to the Salish Sea. These ships, among the largest in the world, raise the likelihood of a devastating spill, as well as damage from subsurface noise, and endanger habitat for orca, salmon, herring and our people. The risks of collisions and the impact of sound that can't be mitigated will both be studied in this report.

When the environmental impact statement is done, Gateway Pacific Terminal will propose mitigations for the impacts the project is guaranteed to have. At RE Sources we believe this environmental impact statement - a report that will take a hard look at the science - will show there to be many impacts we don't want to endure or that simply can't be mitigated. When the decision-makers see this analysis, we are confident Gateway Pacific Terminal will not be permitted.

Due to its location at environmentally and culturally sensitive Cherry Point, and because of its massive scale of operations, and its dirty and dangerous cargo of coal, we believe permitting and building Gateway is nothing short of a giant step in the wrong direction. In a few years the environmental impact statement will prove that to be true, and we here in Whatcom County will be able to continue about our business of building a healthy and sustainable economy that protects our traditional values and ways of life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Crina Hoyer is the executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities in Bellingham. This commentary first appeared in the Cascadia Weekly. 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.

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