Local

Key decision expected from Whatcom County this week on cargo terminal

Although the Gateway Pacific Terminal project faces years of regulatory scrutiny, the coal and bulk cargo pier proposed for Cherry Point faces a key regulatory decision in the next few days: the validity of a 1997 shoreline permit issued by Whatcom County.

SSA Marine of Seattle is proposing to build the facility, touting it as a source of high-wage jobs as well as millions in state and local tax revenue. But the project is drawing heated opposition on a wide array of grounds: increased rail traffic through Bellingham, health and environmental damage from coal dust and locomotive exhaust, and climate change impacts after the coal is burned in China and other Asian countries.

In a permit application filed with the Whatcom County Planning Department on June 10, SSA Vice President Skip Sahlin asserts that "we already have a valid Major Development Permit and Substantial Development Permit that would allow us to construct stage 1 of the proposal."

Instead of seeking an entirely new permit, SSA is asking the county to process its application as a "revision" to the 1997 permit.

But Earthjustice, a Seattle environmental law firm, is challenging that contention on behalf of Sierra Club, Climate Solutions, and ReSources for Sustainable Communities, a Bellingham organization in the forefront of opposition to SSA's plans.

In a letter sent to the county Friday, June 17, Earthjustice attorneys Jan Hasselman and Kristen Boyles argue that treating SSA's project as a permit revision would mean less public scrutiny than a new permit application would require.

"We are deeply concerned that (SSA) is trying - at the earliest stage of the process - to circumvent that close scrutiny, public process and regulatory review by applying for a permit revision rather than a new permit," the letter states.

Among other things, accepting the validity of the existing permit would mean the revision would be processed under shoreline regulations in place in 1992, when the original permit application was filed, Earthjustice says.

A new permit application would have to meet tougher standard in the 2008 version of that plan, which allows development in the Cherry Point industrial area only if it would result in "no net loss" to the environment.

The Earthjustice letter is addressed to Tyler Schroeder, the official in charge of the county review process. The letter notes that the county has until June 24 to rule on whether SSA's June 10 application is complete. The attorneys ask Schroeder to reject SSA's application as incomplete, since it does not seek a new permit.

The earlier permit approved by the Whatcom County Council in 1997 envisioned a 180-acre development that would handle 8.2 million tons of cargo a year, including petroleum coke (produced by local refineries) iron ore, sulfur, potash and wood chips. There was no mention of coal.

The application submitted to Whatcom County on June 10 envisions a terminal with a maximum of 54 million tons of cargo a year, including substantial amounts of coal, and using 350 acres.

In an email, SSA attorney William Lynn downplayed the significance of the matter.

He acknowledged that the revisions to the permit that SSA is seeking are major, and those revisions will require the same process as a new permit.

"But they are still revisions and the review is of the changes, not the aspects previously approved," Lynn wrote. "So it is a new permit focused on the changes."

Schroeder and his boss, County Planning Director Sam Ryan, have not responded to requests for comment on the permit issue.

STATE EMAILS QUESTION PROJECT TIMELINE

No matter what the county decides on the local permit issue, the Gateway Pacific project still faces a lengthy environmental impact statement process that has yet to begin. That process will involve review of a wide array of environmental impacts by state agencies, Indian tribes and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

SSA officials have said they expect to complete the process in two years. But in emails obtained via a public records request, state officials express doubt that it could happen that fast.

Records show that on Dec. 6, 2010, high-level state staffers met with the Army Corps and officials of both SSA Marine and BNSF Railway Co. The notes of that meeting indicate that government agencies advised project proponents that a two-year time frame was very ambitious.

"Other equally complex projects have taken much longer," the notes say.

The records also indicate that Gov. Chris Gregoire and her staff are wrestling with the economic benefits and possible environmental costs of the SSA proposal.

Gregoire's Commerce Department Director Rogers Weed and Agriculture Department Director Dan Newhouse have been publicly supportive of Gateway Pacific, but the emails indicate that the departments of Ecology and Fish & Wildlife are prepared to give the project full scrutiny.

In a July 27, 2010, email to high-level agency officials, Gregoire's chief of staff, Jay Manning, seemed to be trying to find common ground.

"While the Governor has chosen job creation as one of her top four priorities (and our export initiative is a central component of that priority) she has also chosen protecting and restoring Puget Sound as one of her top four priorities," Manning wrote. "We will not give protecting herring habitat and other environmental challenges short shrift as we go through the process. ... My hope is that we can have both an important new, job-creating project, and restoration of an important part of the Puget Sound ecosystem."

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Consumer Protection Blog at TheBellinghamHerald.com/blogs.

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