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Whatcom Council shelves GPT coal terminal environmental study

FILE - A ship is seen in the distance moored at the BP oil refinery in the Strait of Georgia on Oct. 23, 2012, just beyond the location of a proposed coal exporting terminal at Cherry Point, near Ferndale, Wash.
FILE - A ship is seen in the distance moored at the BP oil refinery in the Strait of Georgia on Oct. 23, 2012, just beyond the location of a proposed coal exporting terminal at Cherry Point, near Ferndale, Wash. AP

Whatcom County is ready to wrap up loose ends on a draft environmental study for the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point and archive it so work can be picked up again in the future if need be.

On Tuesday, Sept. 13, Whatcom County Council approved a 6-month extension with environmental consultant CH2M Hill, to ensure the work on the draft environmental impact study for the Gateway Pacific Terminal and the BNSF Custer Spur Improvement Project “is closed out in an orderly fashion.”

The $51,085 in work will be paid for with pass-through money from project proponent Pacific International Terminals (PIT), owned by SSA Marine.

While some community members and council members questioned whether the county should extend the contract at all, county staff assured the council that the extension was designed to shut down the process and complete the contract.

The wrap-up should provide the reports and data that have been compiled in an easier-to-access format for the public, said Tyler Schroeder, Whatcom County deputy executive. It should also make work done on the more than $11 million study easier to resume.

In April, PIT suspended work on the environmental study, and the consultants “put their pens down and stopped work on it,” Schroeder said in an interview.

“This allows them to go back and organize where all those work documents are and index them for whatever use it turns out to be needed for in the future,” Schroeder said.

While the draft was expected to be finished by October, it appears that deadline might have been missed even without the work suspension, Schroeder said.

No reports have been finished to date, he said, though 11 had been submitted for review by the agencies leading the study, and about 13 were still in development.

Background

In May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the project a federal permit, holding it would affect Lummi Nation’s treaty-protected fishing rights, and stopped work on its portion of the environmental study.

Because of that, the state Department of Natural Resources rejected a separate lease application, and with both decisions it appears unlikely the proposal will move forward any time soon.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws told the council Tuesday that the county had made it clear: “We aren’t going to sit through years of holding this contract as an active contract based on what they may or may not do.”

“We either need to finish it or close it,” Louws said. “This closes it.”

Council members still wanted to make sure the contract would not be delayed further, and removed language that would allow for any extension of the agreement.

Schroeder will check with the consultant and other parties to see if they will accept those changes and if so, start the “ramp-down” process.

The environmental study process is separate from a permit the county will be asked to make a decision on, and staff is working on a recommendation for that permit, Schroeder said.

“There is language in the major project permit code section that requires projects to be consistent with other state and federal laws as it relates to the proposal,” Schroeder told the council Tuesday.

“So more than likely in the next, near future the county will be sending correspondence to the applicant to indicate to them that there is a due diligence, yes they have a due process, but the permit itself has to come to some type of completion.”

That said, Schroeder wanted to make it clear the staff still was looking at what some options might look like, and the county code does not have language that allows a major project permit to expire.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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