Cherry Point cargo terminal gathers momentum

After more than 10 years of planning and discussion, a massive bulk cargo terminal proposed for Cherry Point could be gaining momentum.

At a Wednesday, Oct. 20, visit to the site at the end of Gulf Road, south of the BP Cherry Point crude oil dock, representatives of Seattle-based SSA Marine said they expect to break ground on the $400 million Gateway Pacific Terminal project by the end of 2012, and have it up and running within five years.

The terminal would be a loading point for large vessels carrying cargoes that could include grain, coal, potash, or other minerals that would arrive at the site by rail.

Given the complexities of environmental permits for such a project, the timeline seems ambitious. But Rogers Weed, director of the Washington Department of Commerce, said Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to help the project move forward. She convened a high-level meeting several weeks ago with state agency heads, asking them to help coordinate and streamline the regulatory process to move the project forward.

Weed said the governor hopes to achieve big increases in exports of Washington grain, and that will mean adding port capacity.

"Projects like this put us in a better position to achieve those lofty goals," he said.

Weed was at the site Wednesday to learn more about the project. So was U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett. Larsen promised to make sure federal agencies understand the importance of the project and give it their full attention.

Several local union leaders joined the meeting on the beach to express their support.

"How can we not be in favor of it, for a variety of reasons?" said Dave Warren, president of the Northwest Central Labor Council. "I don't know when another opportunity like this is going to come into our community."

On Monday, Oct. 25, the Bellingham City Council will consider a resolution in support of the project, which promises a big payoff in jobs and tax revenue.

Skip Sahlin and Bob Watters, both SSA vice presidents, estimate the two-to-three year construction phase would employ 1,100 people, with a permanent workforce of 150 to 200 once the terminal is operating. They also estimate $9.8 million in annual state and local tax payments.

Matt Krogh, North Sound Baykeeper with the Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said his organization does not oppose the project. But he contended SSA has been slow completing environmental studies they agreed to do as part of a 1999 settlement of a court case with other environmental groups.

The Cherry Point area is a critical spawning ground for a dwindling stock of Pacific herring that are an important part of the food chain for salmon, whales and other marine creatures. Krogh said SSA needs to do extensive studies of the terminal's potential impact on those herring, and develop ways to minimize impacts.

"The speed with which they're trying to do this now looks like they are trying to get out of their environmental commitments," Krogh said.

He observed that the existing Cherry Point ecosystem also supports jobs, including commercial fishing and the tourism supported by orca whales that are at the top of the marine food chain.

SSA's Watters said his firm expects to complete the agreed-upon studies while conducting research for an environmental impact statement needed before state and federal permits can be obtained.

Sahlin and Watters highlighted the environmentally friendly aspects of the project: The site features deep water close to shore, so no dredging would be required to create a port there, and about 40 percent of the roughly 1,000-acre site would be undeveloped buffer areas.

The key feature of the project would be a 3,000-foot wharf parallel to the shore, connected to land by a 1,250-foot trestle. Shoreside improvements will include storage facilities, administrative offices and rail loops for unloading rail cars.

Sahlin said his firm is trying to move ahead quickly to help meet the demand for added West Coast shipping capacity. That would be profitable for his firm, he said, as well as for the commodities producers who would gain more access to Asian markets.

"Grain's the hot commodity right now," he said. "We can't get enough grain on the water."

SSA envisions a terminal that would handle products from more than half of the continent, from here to Chicago.

"We have to be flexible," Watters said. "We have to be able to handle all kinds of commodities."

A key player in the regulatory process will be the Washington Department of Natural Resources. SSA will need an aquatic lease from DNR to build the terminal.

Earlier this year, SSA and other Cherry Point industries expressed concern about DNR's plan to create a new aquatic reserve at Cherry Point, fearing such a reserve would impose new regulatory barriers to industrial expansion in the area.

DNR spokesman Aaron Toso said his agency is considering the reactions of industries and others to the aquatic reserve plan, and the agency expects to issue its final version of the plan next month.