Civic Agenda: Whatcom County preparing for 13-month study of coal terminal plan

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 16, 2014 

Whatcom County is an incredible place with many attributes making it an amazing community. Our community strives to provide a balance between the environment and the economy. This balance encompasses using the land to produce raspberries or farm-to-market products, sustainable timber operations in our forests, and working shorelines supporting fishing and industrial trade. With this connection in mind, Whatcom County has aspired to grow our communities while respecting our natural resources. This balance in our community is why people and businesses choose to stay and why many choose to move to our beautiful area.

Accomplishing this balance is not easy. To achieve this balance and manage the needs of our economy while protecting our quality of life requires community discussion. The intent of the state Environmental Policy Act, known as SEPA, is to help achieve this balance and facilitate the discussion. The SEPA process has been a prominent aspect of the environmental review process for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, commonly referred to as the GPT project. The GPT project proposes to export through a marine terminal up to 54 million metric tons per year of bulk commodities, including 48 million metric tons of coal. To accomplish this size of a facility the proposal has many potential environmental impacts including but not limited to; up to 150 acres of wetland, half-mile long wharf and 1,100-foot trestle in an area with a sensitive herring population. Along with these potential impacts comes a balance with the significant economic advantages to the community.

The Washington State Legislature adopted SEPA in 1970. The director of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services Department is the responsible official for administering the law at the local level. In the last five years Whatcom County has made close to 100 SEPA decisions annually. These SEPA reviews are conducted on a project-by-project basis. Small projects, similar to a 40-car parking lot, are processed with a fairly straightforward review. Large projects, similar to the GPT project, require a very thorough review that encompasses community and agency discussion to ensure the impacts are known to the decision makers. This case-by-case basis is similar to the different paths available in developing an Environment Impact Statement (EIS).

Part of the SEPA law is mandated while other sections provide a framework for decisions. This is to allow for community discussion while ensuring the ability of the county administration to prepare an EIS that is legally defensible and thorough. SEPA law indicates the scoping period typically runs 30 days, and in comparison, the GPT project had a 120-day scoping period. This extended period was to ensure full community dialogue could be accomplished statewide. The GPT project issued a scoping summary report including a summary of the approximately 125,000 comments. The goal was to allow for a timely response to the communities and to allow for additional review of the comments and applicable SEPA laws before making decisions. All past and future decisions strive to balance the community discussion while making sure the known environmental factors are taken into consideration.

There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the involvement the Whatcom County Council is allowed in the development of the EIS. Due to the council's role as a quasi-judicial body, the decision maker for the permit, the council cannot have any role in the development of the EIS. The council role in the permit process is aimed at arriving at a fact-based decision on the merits of the Whatcom County Code for a major project permit. The public participation in the EIS process provides valuable input and insights that the council can address in the final decision-making process.

One way the EIS will help inform the council decision is to specifically address the seven required criteria for issuance of the major project permit. An example of one of the criteria is the proposed development "will not impose uncompensated requirements for public expenditures..." This criterion and the others will be addressed throughout the EIS and will be specifically referenced in the land use section of the EIS. It is a large responsibility for county staff to produce a useful EIS document on a project of this scale. Through this process, the county has been co-lead with the Department of Ecology on the environmental review process. There have been different roles the co-lead agencies have taken while sharing the overall responsibility of the EIS. The county is focused on the probable impacts in and near Whatcom County and Ecology has focused on the statewide and regional impacts. In addition, our consultant CH2M Hill is directed by the co-lead agencies to prepare and analyze the project utilizing experts hired specifically to help the agencies prepare the EIS. All of the county staff time and the cost for CH2M Hill's work have been directly paid by the applicants of the project.

Overall, this coordination between the agencies and the consultant has been very productive. The contract scope of work, budget and schedule, for the draft EIS phase is finalized. We anticipate the applicants will agree to fund the study and staff time very soon, likely within the month.

Since the contract has not been signed to date, the agencies have not substantively started to prepare the draft EIS. The scope, schedule and level of effort for this phase of the contract has been prepared based on a 13-month project schedule. This means the development of the draft EIS is scheduled to be accomplished spring/summer 2015. This timeline is a "best case" schedule. The environmental review process often requires adaptions due to changes in design and new information revealed that may require additional time above the 13 months to accomplish the draft EIS.

One aspect of the EIS process that may frustrate some is that the SEPA law does not include an ability to have public input during the development of the draft EIS. This allows the agencies to work and prepare a draft EIS that will include the analyses, detailed models and methodologies used to provide adequate information. When the draft EIS is issued in 2015 there will be another public comment period for the community to provide feedback. At that time, the co-lead agencies will consider and respond to all comments. The draft will be revised and additional analyses or research may be done, depending on comments. Ultimately, what is included in the EIS must be technically and legally sound. We cannot and will not speculate on impacts. This process will continue to strive for community discussion while providing the Whatcom County Council a fair and impartial record upon which to base a permit decision.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tyler Schroeder is planning manager with Whatcom County Planning and Development Services. He is the lead state Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, official for the Gateway Pacific project. You can reach him at tschroed@co.whatcom.wa.us. The county website has a page dedicated to the project at: http://www.whatcomcounty.us/pds/plan/current/gpt-ssa/index.jsp. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or jlouws@co.whatcom.wa.us.

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