Grading and clearing work at the Gateway Pacific marine terminal site at Cherry Point has been halted while county officials determine to what extent property owner SSA Marine violated county development rules in doing that work.
It is the latest controversy triggered by SSA's proposal to build a massive marine cargo terminal to export coal and other bulk commodities at the site.
Whatcom County Council member Carl Weimer discovered the grading work in July while walking his dog in the area. On his blog, Weimer estimated that about 2.5 miles of dirt roads had been graded through the property, resulting in the clearing of a total of 4.5 acres of land, including some protected wetlands. He reported it to Whatcom County Planning and Development Services.
In an apparent response to an inquiry from the county, a representative of the AMEC consulting firm sent the county an email defending the excavations. AMEC is conducting the work for SSA.
In a July 20 email to county natural resources supervisor Wayne Fitch, AMEC senior land use and environmental planner Cliff Strong acknowledged that "access paths" had been cut through the property to allow drilling equipment to reach several sites on the property to do geotechnical research. But Strong contended that the county had approved the work in 2008.
In a July 22 email back to AMEC, posted on the county's website, Fitch said the work done at the site "has gone well beyond what was previously authorized in 2008 and should be discontinued until future authorizations have been obtained. A land disturbance permit shall be required for work that has resulted in tree clearing and grading ... and all exposed soils should be appropriately stabilized as soon as possible."
On Monday, Aug. 1, Weimer sent a letter to County Planning Director Sam Ryan asking that she determine whether SSA had violated the county's development standards, and if so, what sanctions should be imposed.
County Executive Pete Kremen said he would meet Tuesday, Aug. 2, with planning officials to determine what happens next. He added that it seems clear that SSA violated county laws and regulations.
Kremen said he doesn't favor a punitive approach, but he wants to send a message.
"We need to take appropriate action," Kremen said. "There should not be a slap on the wrist. We need to demonstrate to the people that our rules and regulations must be adhered to."
In an email, SSA Marine spokesman Gary Smith defended the company's actions. He said some people were falsely describing the work as road-building, or even as the first phase of construction of the hotly debated terminal project, which must pass muster after years of regulatory scrutiny before it would be allowed to proceed.
"Clearing to get in temporary testing equipment is not road building in the sense of creating something permanent or a part of some future operation," Smith wrote. "Nothing of this is 'construction' in any normal sense. Testing, gathering data, yes. Construction, no. And while the county may feel that SSA Marine's contractors exceeded the bounds of the permit to do this testing, the contractors were in fact proceeding with a permit and believed they were following the rules."
Smith also provided a more extensive written comment from SSA Marine vice president Bob Watters.
"SSA Marine and its engineering contractors understood that we had permission and were in full compliance with county regulations for gathering geotechnical information for the EIS," Watters said.
"As soon as we became aware there was a question about our compliance, we ordered an immediate stop to all work until we had cleared up the matter," Watters said.
"The impacts that result are temporary and the areas will quickly restore themselves. SSA Marine's contractors are following best management practices for this work."
That drew another retort from Kremen, who said it was misleading to suggest that SSA voluntarily stopped the work. As Kremen sees it, SSA's consultants defended their behavior and stopped work only after Fitch's July 22 email ordered them to do so.
"They did not use best management practices," Kremen said. "Obviously it injures the image and the reputation that they're trying to perpetuate in our community."
In other Gateway Pacific news, a coalition of environmental groups announced Monday, Aug. 1, that they were ending negotiations with SSA Marine.
The groups had signed a 1999 agreement to drop a lawsuit that had blocked SSA's earlier plan for a much smaller cargo terminal that had not been expected to handle coal. In recent months, representatives of those groups had been conducting talks with SSA to determine if the agreement could be amended to cover the company's current plan.
In a press release, the groups said those talks had proved fruitless because the company could not convince them that a larger, coal-handling terminal would not do further harm to the much-diminished herring population in the area.
RELATED EMAIL, BLOG
Whatcom County Public Works: Read the e-mail exchange (PDF).
Carl Weimer blog: Read the entry about Cherry Point.