A final decision on the Gateway Pacific Terminal is years away, but it's very much on the minds of Whatcom County Council members who could decide whether to approve or reject a permit for the coal-export facility at Cherry Point.
Council members on Tuesday, Feb. 11, turned down a proposal by Chairman Carl Weimer that would have granted council the authority to publicly review the contract dictating terms of an environmental study of the project. Council members feared any action to influence the project at this stage would expose them to accusations of bias when it came time to vote on the coal terminal's major development permit.
The contract, with consulting firm CH2M Hill, was originally approved by the council in 2012 and was amended three times in 2013, mostly for the extra work needed to process 125,000 comments on what the environmental review should include. Those amendments were approved by county Executive Jack Louws, not the council.
The executive has the authority to approve changes to "pass through" contracts in which the costs are covered not by the county but by an outside party. All costs for CH2M Hill's environmental review are supposed to be borne by the project proponents, SSA Marine and BNSF Railway Co. BNSF is included because it plans to build a second spur from its main line to reach the terminal at Cherry Point.
The county has billed the companies $59,931 so far, Louws said Tuesday. County staff time is billed at $100 an hour.
Weimer said his proposal to bring future contract changes before the council was intended to make the coal terminal review more accessible to the public, and to ensure the county recouped all of its expenses.
Weimer's resolution asked the executive not to sign any "pass through" contract amendments until after council decides whether it wants to review those changes itself. The resolution failed Tuesday night, 6 to 1, with Weimer casting the only "yes" vote.
The rest of the council noted that the permit decision will be "quasi-judicial." This means that like judges, council members must remain impartial or risk losing the opportunity to decide on the permit.
"My first priority throughout this process has been to protect my right and the rest of the council's right to vote on the final project, and I'm reluctant to do anything that could possibly be seen to jeopardize that," council member Rud Browne said before the vote on the resolution.
The next amendment to the CH2M Hill contract will enable the consultant to begin work on the environmental review, a document that is sure to be lengthy and that will take at least 13 months to complete.
The county wont process SSA Marines major development permit application until after the review document, called an environmental impact statement, is finalized possibly before the end of 2015, although the timeline is highly uncertain.