After years of study, the Washington Department of Natural Resources has unveiled a draft version of a management plan for the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve that could have significant impacts on some of Whatcom County's biggest industries.
The industries with deep-water docks in the area - BP and ConocoPhillips oil refineries and the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter - all had representatives on a panel that provided DNR with input on the plan as it was thrashed out over the last few years. SSA Marine, developer of the proposed Gateway Pacific shipping terminal, was also represented. So were a wide array of environmental groups, Native American tribes, other state agencies and Whatcom County government.
DNR officials deny that the new management plan would disrupt existing industries or the long-simmering plans for the Gateway Pacific terminal. But they agree that the plan is meant to provide more environmental protection for a sensitive area that is home to a dwindling herring population - a vital food source for other struggling species, such as chinook salmon and seabirds.
"It doesn't limit any current activity and it would also allow for a fourth dock to be built," department spokesman Aaron Toso said.
But SSA Marine vice president Bob Watters said the plan contains language that makes his company nervous about committing $400 million to build a Gateway Pacific bulk commodities terminal that could create as many as 2,000 short-term construction jobs and a long-term payroll of 120 to 150. Watters added that SSA is ready to begin the 12-to-18-month permitting process for the terminal. DNR's proposed management plan may call that into question, but he stressed that the company is still studying the 198-page document.
"It's going to have dramatic negative impact on the future and existing industries out there, potentially eroding jobs and tax base," Watters said. "We have to reassess our position."
Spokesmen for the oil refineries said they preferred to make written comments to DNR. Intalco did not respond to a request for comment.
Craig Cole, a former Whatcom County council member who helped forge Whatcom County's Cherry Point land use plans, said he shares the fears he is hearing from his industry contacts. As he sees it, the plan seems to impose extra burdens of environmental proof on any new facilities in the area.
"That's the area we've set aside for heavy industry, and on the whole it's worked pretty well," Cole said. "This plan basically shuts it down over time. It runs that risk."
Kyle Murphy, DNR's aquatic reserves program manager, said that kind of talk is overblown: The management plan acknowledges both existing industries and the proposed new terminal as compatible uses. He also noted that the three existing docks and the proposed new one are not inside the reserve. BP, ConocoPhillips and Intalco all have long-term leases with DNR to operate docks on the state's tidelands.
"We can't alter existing contractual obligations," Murphy said.
But he acknowledged that a more stringent management plan for the area surrounding the industrial leases could have an impact when and if those industries seek lease modifications for expansion.
"I don't think the intent is to make it more difficult for them to expand," Murphy said. "I think the intent is to manage those aquatic lands according to the best available science."
DNR's Toso said the Cherry Point plan is part of Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark's effort to improve the environmental health of the state's waterways.
"This is a broader commitment to restoration and recovery of the sound," Toso said. "We need to find a balance."
But as Cole sees it, DNR's new management plan threatens to upset the balance already in place after earlier county and state planning efforts.
"I think we took a rational approach to this," Cole said. "I am an environmentalist, but I'm very concerned about the loss of high-value jobs in our economy. We don't have that many any more."
The two refineries and the aluminum smelter now account for about 1,500 direct jobs, and probably at least that many more indirect jobs. A recent study estimated that Intalco alone produces 1,500 indirect jobs, in addition to its 500-person payroll.
Environmental consultant Fred Felleman, an outspoken advocate for protection of Cherry Point herring, served on the advisory panel that worked with DNR to develop the plan. He said he doesn't want to see the industries shut down, but he does want to see environmental restoration get top priority. He believes the proposed new management plan is a step in the right direction.
While nobody thinks the refineries are solely to blame for the dramatic drop in herring populations in the area, Felleman said it would be "comical" to deny that they have an impact.
Wendy Steffensen, lead scientist for the North Sound Baykeeper program at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, also served on the advisory panel. She stressed that the plan recognizes the industries' rights to operate. Like Felleman, she welcomes the plan's emphasis on environmental recovery for the area, and its call for more intensive scientific research to use as a basis for decisions.
But she wants to see more specifics.
"We're not sure how some of these activities are going to be funded," Steffensen said. "On the whole, DNR has done a good job, but we need more specifics. What are we going to do, and by when?"
Meanwhile, the herring population in the area remains in crisis. Kurt Stick, herring biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he has not yet completed his annual survey of Cherry Point herring, but preliminary indications are not good.
"Tentatively, it looks like it's going to be very close to our lowest on record," Stick said.
Read the plan: Click here.
Attend the meeting: Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Draft Management Plan.
When: 6 to 8 p.m. Monday June 7.
Where: Fairhaven branch, Bellingham Public Library, 1117 12th St.
Who: State experts on Cherry Point ecology will explain the plan.
Comment in writing: P.O. Box 47015, Olympia, WA 98504-7015
By e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deadline: June 24.