The three agencies conducting environmental reviews of a proposed coal export terminal and railroad spur at Cherry Point will produce two reports, not just one as originally planned, according to an agreement completed last week.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is breaking with the state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County to draft its own "environmental impact statement" under federal law. Ecology and the county's separate statement will be written according to state law.
Supporters of the terminal, which would export up to 48 million tons of coal a year, said the Corps was repudiating the state's decision to conduct a wide-ranging review. Among other things, Ecology will take into account the emissions of greenhouse gases in Asia that result from coal shipped out of the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed by SSA Marine.
"Washington state is way out of bounds with its interpretation of environmental law, and the Corps is putting that in stark relief," said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resource policy with the National Association of Manufacturers. Eisenberg's statement came on Sept. 6 - shortly after the Corps announced the move.
The decision to produce separate environmental reports became official on Wednesday, Sept. 18, when Ecology signed the agreement.
The practical effect of this separation is unclear, however. Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said not to interpret the Corps' action as critical of the state's decision to take a broad scope.
"The scope of what the state law calls for ... is different from (the national) scope," Graesser said. "It looked to make more sense to do two separate documents."
The Corps' review will be limited to local impacts such as the construction of a three-berth wharf and the filling of wetlands for coal storage and the railroad upgrade.
Cesia Kearns, spokeswoman for the Power Past Coal coalition, was highly critical of the Corps' action.
"The Corps keeps advancing with a blinders-on approach of the narrowest possible interpretation of the regulations and not considering how communities along the rail line would be impacted by this proposal," Kearns said in an email. "Six other federal agencies, seven tribes, numerous elected officials and municipalities, and hundreds of thousands of citizens have called for a full and thorough review of the coal export proposals."
Crina Hoyer, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities in Bellingham, downplayed the significance of the announcement, noting that Ecology is still committed to the broad review environmentalists want.
"We're happy that the state is taking a broad look, and it's unfortunate that the Corps is not," Hoyer said. "I think the fact that Ecology has decided to do a broad scope is really where the story lies."
But she also observed that in departing from a unified environmental review process, the Corps, state and county may make an already-lengthy process even longer.
"It just adds confusion and adds an unfortunate layer of bureaucracy," Hoyer said.
Graesser at the Corps said she hopes that's not the case.
"The public should continue to be able to participate and comment just as they would have," she said.
The new agreement said the Corps, and the state and county, will coordinate release of the two reports "to the maximum extent possible." State and federal officials said it is too early to say whether the draft statements will be released simultaneously. Ecology estimates it will release its review in two years.