Proponents of a coal terminal that would be built at Cherry Point have revised the layout "to ensure greater environmental safeguards," including the destruction of fewer wetlands, according to an announcement they released on Tuesday, July 15.
Environmental groups that oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal remained unimpressed.
The new layout is 14 percent smaller and would require removal of only half of the wetlands that would have been disturbed in the original plan, according to a report by project proponent SSA Marine, submitted in April to Whatcom County, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
SSA Marine must receive permit approvals from all three agencies before it can begin construction of the terminal, which would export up to 48 million tons of coal and 6 million tons of other goods per year to overseas markets.
The new layout became possible because SSA Marine acquired an adjacent property after submitting its original applications and relocated much of the proposed construction onto drier land there.
"We actually went out and got control of another 350 acres that allowed us to develop this alternative layout and resulted in the net reduction of wetlands (impacts) by 49 percent," said Bob Watters, SSA Marine senior vice president.
Any wetlands destroyed during construction would be replaced by new or enhanced wetlands on the project site, the report said.
Environmentalists pointed out that despite the favorable outcome for wetlands, the scale of what would be North America's largest coal terminal remained unchanged.
"We can find nothing to celebrate in this new proposal," said Kate Blystone, program director at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a Bellingham-based environmental group.
"Contrary to SSA Marine's claims, this proposal isn't any better than the one submitted in 2012," Blystone added in her prepared statement. "The applicant admits that this proposal will not in any way decrease the facility's capacity to ship an estimated 48 million tons of coal per year - coal that would roll through our communities on tracks that are already at their limit."
RE Sources also took issue with what appeared to be a faster timeline for the terminal to be fully operational.
Originally, SSA Marine planned to build the terminal in four phases, with completion in 2026. The new report said the entire facility might be fully built by 2019.
"In other words, Whatcom County would feel the impacts of this new terminal - increased train traffic and marine vessel traffic, impacts to fish habitats and populations - seven years sooner and all at once," Blystone said.
Pacific International Terminals, an arm of SSA Marine, already has contracts in hand to ship 40 million tons of coal a year from Gateway Pacific Terminal, the report said.
"PI Terminals now anticipates that all available capacity of the terminal will be under contract when the terminal begins operation," the report said.
Watters said that despite the optimistic outlook given in the report, the terminal still could be built in phases.
"We're getting the whole thing permitted, such that we could get it all constructed at one time," Watters said. "Assuming that market demand is there at the time, we're prepared to go to full build-out."
The contracts for coal exports are not binding, he added.
"We can't guarantee anybody we will have a facility right now," Watters said.
Another anti-coal terminal group, Protect Whatcom, said it will call on regulators to give the public a chance to comment on the revised plan.
"The public, agencies and Washington tribes should be given an opportunity to comment on the effect of the truncated construction schedule for GPT, in the context of other new information that has come to light" since the scope of the environmental study was finalized a year ago, said Terry Wechsler, Protect Whatcom co-founder.
The coal terminal needs to be reconsidered in light of oil-by-rail proposals that have emerged over the past year and a half, Wechsler said.
Protect Whatcom had asked regulators to consider approving a smaller terminal that would bring less rail and tanker traffic, and would require a smaller storage area that could be covered to prevent the spread of coal dust.
In its report, SSA Marine said a smaller terminal was not a viable option. The terminal's 3,000-foot pier, which has already been approved, and anticipated market demand call for the proposed terminal with a capacity of 54 million tons, the report said.
Tyler Schroeder, the county's lead on the Gateway Pacific Terminal review, said a smaller terminal had not been ruled out.
"We do understand that there was a request for the alternatives to include a smaller facility," Schroeder said. "At this time those decisions have not been made."
SSA Marine, consultant CH2M Hill, and the governments conducting the environmental review signed a contract early this year to begin drafting the review, called an environmental impact statement. The draft will take an estimated 13 months to complete, officials have said. The clock has not yet begun ticking, so a draft is expected no sooner than late summer 2015.
Schroeder said county and state officials had been waiting for the alternative site plan to be submitted and were still determining if all the necessary information was in before beginning the review.
As far as Watters was concerned, the review had already begun. SSA Marine will pay all of the $6 million to $8 million cost for the review, and it had been receiving bills for the work since April, Watters said.
"We've already incurred nearly $3 million in consultant costs in the process, so I'm hoping the clock has started," Watters said.