The environmental review process for the Gateway Pacific cargo terminal at Cherry Point began officially Monday, Feb. 28, when SSA Marine submitted preliminary documents on the $500 million project to Whatcom County, state agencies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The first phase of the process is known as "scoping," in which regulatory agencies decide on the scope of environmental issues that the company must study before construction permits are granted. In studying those issues, the company also will learn what steps it must take to make up for the project's impacts on the environment.
The site, between the BP Cherry Point oil refinery and the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter, has been zoned industrial for many years, and land use regulations on the site envision eventual construction of the type of pier that SSA is proposing.
Bob Watters, an SSA Marine vice president, said he's confident that the study process won't uncover any environmental issues that are too serious or too costly to overcome, but the project won't have certainty until the study phase is complete in about two years.
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But Bob Ferris, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, sees some big negatives.
In a letter to the Whatcom Council of Governments, Ferris contended that the terminal's most likely use is for coal exports, and coal trains through the city would mean traffic disruptions, public spending on safety improvements, lost property values, disruption of business activity, and pollution from both coal dust and diesel locomotive exhaust.
Coal dust also would degrade air and water at the terminal site, Ferris's letter says.
Above all, the coal terminal and the coal trains would change Whatcom County's carefully cultivated image.
"The choice in our minds is one between continued pursuit of a bright and promising future or a u-turn towards a past anchored in extractive behaviors that have left us polluted, degraded and mired in ecological, economic and social debt," Ferris wrote.
His letter also notes that Council of Goverments members are likely to face "extreme political pressures" as the process moves ahead.
If the environmental review and permitting process goes as smoothly as company officials hope, SSA would also need to obtain a lease from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which manages the state's waters, before beginning construction in early 2013 and beginning operations in 2015.
At that point, SSA would have a pier capable of handling as many as three large vessels at a time, loading bulk commodities such as coal, potash and grain for shipment to Asian markets.
Watters acknowledged that at full capacity, the terminal could draw as many as nine loaded trains per day through Bellingham, and they would then head back through the city after unloading.
Also on Monday, coal industry giant Peabody Energy delivered another reminder that the terminal's biggest export is likely to be coal.
In a press release, Peabody announced that it was prepared to export 24 million tons of Powder River Basin coal per year via Gateway Pacific, or about five trains per day.
Peabody Energy describes itself as the world's largest private-sector coal company.
While much of the public attention has focused on coal shipments up to this point, Watters said the company can't make such a huge investment based on a single commodity, since supply and demand for any commodity will fluctuate in unpredictable ways in the years ahead.
"The way the facility is set up has to be agile," Watters said. "We're building this for 50 years."
The facility could be built with separate conveyor loading systems for different cargoes.
Seattle-based SSA is still controlled by the family that started the company as Bellingham Stevedoring in 1949. The company has proved adept at lining up prominent supporters in advance of the permitting process.
Whatcom County Central Labor Council President Dave Warren and other local labor leaders are on board, citing the need for the project's estimated 3,500 construction jobs and as many as 430 permanent jobs when the facility operates at full capacity.
Warren said labor leaders have not discounted the environmental impacts before lining up with SSA. Union members care about environmental issues as much as anyone else, he added.
"We're not into jobs at the expense of everything else," Warren said.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, sent out an e-mail statement wishing SSA well.
"Exports are a surefire way to get our economy moving and grow good jobs in the community," Larsen's statement said. "I am pleased to see a Washington-based company making a major private investment in our nation's export infrastructure.
"The Gateway Pacific Terminal will make US companies more competitive in the global market and create hundreds of local family wage jobs. A project of this magnitude is required to go through a thorough permitting process. I am optimistic that this project will be a model for how job creation and the environment can exist in harmony and how groups can work together to facilitate responsible industrial development."
Dan Newhouse, director of the Washington Department of Agriculture, said he supports the terminal because it will help farmers in Washington and other states remain competitive in getting their crops to Asian markets. About 90 percent of Washington wheat is exported.
Newhouse added that eastern Washington farmers have become aware of the Gateway Pacific project and are excited about its potential for them.
"Having options available to you when you're trying to get your crops to market is good," Newhouse said.