State agency will join Whatcom County in review of Cherry Point cargo terminal

The state Department of Ecology has agreed to share the lead role with Whatcom County as the hotly contested Gateway Pacific Terminal project moves through an extensive regulatory process.

Ecology's acceptance of that role appears to resolve a squabble that developed in June between the county and the city of Bellingham, when Mayor Dan Pike sent a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire. That letter asked her to order state agencies to take the lead on the Gateway Pacific issue away from Whatcom County. Pike's letter questioned whether the county was capable of assessing the terminal's potential impacts on Bellingham as well as areas outside the county.

The county fired off its own letter to Gregoire in response. That letter, signed by Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Randall Watts, accused Pike of "erroneous and malicious statements" and "political grandstanding," but the letter also agreed that a larger role for Ecology might be appropriate in the Gateway Pacific review process.

Emails exchanged by top state officials indicate that the dueling letters from city and county officials were duly noted in Olympia.

In an email to top Gregoire staffers, obtained by a public records request, Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant advised the governor not to take sides.

"My advice is to keep the Gov out of this spat between the City and the County," the email said. "It won't be the last on this project."

Gateway Pacific, proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle, would be a deep-water shipping pier for export of coal and other bulk commodities at a Cherry Point site south of the BP refinery. Opponents say the project would cause local air pollution while promoting release of more greenhouse gases in China. They also fear that the added rail traffic through Bellingham to the site would mean noise, traffic disruption and coal dust problems.

In their own exchange of letters Friday, July 15, Sturdevant and Whatcom County Planning Supervisor Tyler Schroeder agreed that the proposed project presents statewide and regional issues that need to be studied as part of the environmental impact statement process.

The environmental impact statement will evaluate the project's potential impacts as well as options for offsetting them.

Washington's State Environmental Policy Act, SEPA, governs the environmental review process. That law makes Whatcom County serves as the lead agency but allows the county to enlist other agencies to share lead agency tasks.

Pike expressed satisfaction at the news of Ecology's beefed-up role.

"It was the right decision," Pike said. "I'm glad the state is stepping up."

Bill Lynn, an attorney representing SSA, said the company has no problem with the new arrangement.

"It's probably a plus," Lynn said. "There are obviously some statewide issues here. ... Ecology is always involved in the SEPA review anyway."