SSA Marine fined, admits mistakes at Cherry Point terminal site

Whatcom County Planning and Development Services has levied fines against SSA Marine totalling $2,000 in connection with unauthorized road-grading work at the Gateway Pacific Terminal site at Cherry Point.

The company also will be required to pay an additional $2,400 to cover county staff costs in dealing with the issue. The company also is being ordered to repair the damaged areas.

SSA Marine has acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in grading work on the Gateway Pacific Terminal site at Cherry Point, where the company has proposed a massive new shipping terminal to handle coal and other bulk cargoes. The grading was apparently done to clear the way for drilling equipment taking geotechnical core samples on the property. County officials said the activity harmed protected wetlands and went well beyond the scope of work that had been approved by the county.

"SSA Marine's standards were not met and this is not acceptable," SSA Marine vice president Bob Watters said in a press release sent to media Wednesday, Aug. 3. "We are taking the necessary steps to make this right."

The grading work attracted scrutiny after County Council member Carl Weimer reported it to county officials.

County Executive Pete Kremen noted that earlier in the week, the company said its consultants believed they were following county regulations in doing the work, and they had followed "best management practices." The statement accepting responsibility for the environmental damage came after it became clear that the county would sanction the firm.

"I think they would have been better-served by making that (apology) statement on July 30 rather than on Aug. 2," Kremen said.

The company's press release said it is working closely with the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "to catalogue both mistakes in procedure and possible impacts to the site, and will correct all areas identified." The corps has jurisdiction over federal wetlands protection laws.

"There was a breakdown between what our managers expected and what our contractors did on the ground," Watters' statement said. "But ultimately we are the responsible party. We will be making changes internally and establishing new protocols to make sure this can't happen again. In addition, we will implement the corrective measures required to restore any damage, to the satisfaction of the county and the corps."

The apology did little to appease SSA's critics.

In an email, Weimer said the damage to the company's credibility can't be undone.

"It is good that SSA has admitted that they made serious mistakes and plan to correct them, but this still calls into question whether people should believe much else this company has claimed," Weimer said. "They have the resources to do things right, but they have already shown that they can't."

Bob Ferris, executive director at RE Sources for Sustainable communities, had a similar reaction.

"The fact that a multi-billion dollar international corporation illegally damaged habitat and wetlands and disregarded best management practices in an area outside the geographic scope of their permits demonstrates a lack of attention to detail that is unacceptable given SSA Marine's size and purported environmental ethic," Ferris said. "The fact that their first response was a strident denial of any wrong-doing in the face of contrary evidence does not reflect well on SSA's ethics or dedication to their inferred public trust responsibility. An eleventh-hour defensive apology does nothing to alter these two facts, because their actions have already spoken louder than their words."

In other developments related to the shipping terminal project, Skagit County Commissioners have written to Gov. Chris Gregoire to express their concerns about rail traffic that would pass through that county on the way to Cherry Point.

According to the Skagit Valley Herald, they also asked that Skagit County be included as a member of the governor's "multi-agency permit team" that is coordinating the extensive regulatory review of SSA's proposal.

At this point, that would seem unlikely. The permit team has already denied an identical request from the city of Bellingham.


Click on the links below to read some of the documents regarding the violations:

Notice of violations of the county's Critical Areas Ordinance (PDF)

Notice of violations of the county's land clearing regulations (PDF)

Memo to County Executive Pete Kremen about the violations and penalties (PDF)

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