Federal, state and local agencies have yet to finish counting, much less actually reviewing, the thousands of public comments submitted on the question of what issues require study during the multi-year process of determining whether a coal export terminal will be built at Cherry Point.
"We're looking at an unprecedented number of comments," said Washington Department of Ecology spokesman Larry Altose.
When Altose said that, he was estimating that about 20,000 comments had been received. But by the end of the day Friday, Jan. 25, he said the avalanche of last-minute comments would push the total above 50,000, with an exact count still days away.
Significant numbers of those comments are near-identical because they were churned out by campaigns organized by both backers and opponents of SSA Marine's Gateway Pacific Terminal project, Altose said.
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Once the comments have been analyzed, the three key agencies - Ecology, Whatcom County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - will issue a report outlining their joint decision on the scope of the environmental impact statement, or EIS. The impact statement will measure Gateway Pacific's negative effects and what could be done to compensate for them.
Whatcom County Planning Manager Tyler Schroeder said it is too soon to say how long it will take to reach a scope decision.
"Now the real work begins," Schroeder said.
State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said the State Legislature could get into the act if the regulatory agencies fail to include key issues in the scope of environmental study. One example: If the study fails to address the potential dangers from increased ship traffic, the Legislature could pass legislation that would force export facilities to pay the cost of bolstering the state's marine oil spill response system.
State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said it was too soon to speculate about such things, and he also said it was unlikely that any such legislation would be brought forward this year.
Those who oppose Gateway Pacific on environmental grounds are hoping for the widest possible range of study. Any negative impacts that are identified would, in theory, have to be addressed by SSA and BNSF Railway Co., and steps to avoid those impacts could be prohibitively expensive.
Backers see Gateway Pacific as a golden opportunity to add jobs and tax revenues. They argue that problems are either exaggerated or could be controlled with a well-designed project, and opponents are trying to use the environmental impact statement process to drag in unrelated environmental issues to kill the project as part of their war on coal.
Bob Watters, SSA's senior vice president, issued a written statement suggesting that the environmental study remain local in scope.
"Let's remember that, by law, an EIS is supposed to study the most important local effects, not resolve major public policy questions or study things only vaguely related to the specific project that is under consideration," Watters said.
"Ultimately, the agencies will decide what the scope of the EIS will be and we will support whatever decision they make," he wrote.
One of the biggest potential costs could be railroad overpasses to avoid traffic delays at busy crossings. Opponents say the EIS should study rail impacts all over the region.
At full capacity, Gateway Pacific would handle as many as nine trainloads per day of coal and perhaps other cargoes, to be loaded on board ships bound for China and other Asian destinations.
Many commenters go beyond statements about what issues should be studied, stating their opposition to the project. Among the most forceful of those is a 23-page submittal from the Lummi Indian Business Council and its chairman, Tim Ballew.
In 2012, tribal officials abandoned an earlier "wait-and-see" approach to Gateway Pacific, and mounted two public demonstrations against it at Cherry Point. Tribal officials also attended public meetings to denounce the project.
The tribe's written comments contend that construction of the coal terminal will violate tribal rights guaranteed by the Treaty of Point Elliott and by federal court decisions. The tribe provides numerous specific examples, among them tribal rights to catch salmon, crab and shellfish. The tribe also contends that construction of the terminal would disrupt tribal burial sites.
"Construction and operation of the proposed projects will disturb archaeological sites and traditional cultural properties associated with the Cherry Point area," the tribe writes. "These impacts will result in significant, unavoidable, and unacceptable interference with our treaty rights and irreversible and irretrievable damage to our spiritual values if the proposed projects are approved."
The tribe also opposes the project's proposed use of Nooksack River water, delivered by the Whatcom County Public Utility District, for dust control and other uses. The tribe argues that low water flows in the river are already harming salmon runs, and "additional withdrawals from the Nooksack River for this proposed project should not be allowed."
The tribe's outspoken opposition could be a critical issue for SSA. In the past, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has had a policy of withholding permits if tribes contend their treaty rights are at stake.
Federal, state and local government agencies not involved in the Gateway Pacific regulatory process have weighed in with their own scoping comments.
Mark Asmundson, executive director of the Northwest Clean Air Agency, takes no position on the project, but his letter raises doubts about the effectiveness of dust control measures that SSA has proposed.
"The EIS should identify an acceptable amount of dust fallout on these sensitive areas in units of tons per year, and the basis for that acceptable level, providing a thorough analysis that considers any and all toxic constituents of the bulk commodities," Asmundson wrote. "To control fugitive dust from certain bulk material piles, the proponent favors water and surfactant application, which have been in use for decades at other facilities - sometimes with less than acceptable results."
Asmundson also expressed concern about carbon monoxide and other toxic gas emissions from the project, and the possibility that those emissions could put the air in the area out of compliance with federal standards. His letter notes that the nearby Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter is already a major source of carbon monoxide at Cherry Point.
"Alcoa emits about the same quantity of carbon monoxide as all of the cars in Whatcom County combined," Asmundson wrote.
In Skagit County, the issue of rail crossing delays was raised by county commissioners, Port of Skagit commissioners, the city of Mount Vernon and Sheriff Will Reichardt.
In Ferndale, Mayor Gary Jensen has been supportive of Gateway Pacific, but the city's community development director, Jori Burnett, sent a comment letter that raises many of the same concerns about rail traffic and its potential impacts on Ferndale.
"There will be cumulative impacts on the immediate and surrounding area (including Ferndale) and these impacts must be mitigated by the entities that create them," Burnett wrote.
Ferndale School District's special services director, Michael Berres, asks for study of impacts on emergency response times from rail crossing blockages.
"What would be the impact of delayed response times from emergency medical responders on the students and staff of the school district?" Berres' letter asks. "There were 125 students in the district last June with life-threatening medical conditions."
SEE THE COMMENTS
All the comments received in the scoping process for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project are being posted online. They can be sorted or searched based on when they were submitted, the submitter's name, city and what issues they address, among other options. Go to eisgatewaypacificwa.gov and click on the "scoping comments" link on the right.