Gateway Pacific regulatory process still in slow motion

BELLINGHAM - The process for determining the environmental impacts of the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal and bulk cargo pier still may be months away from beginning in earnest, a state official said Thursday, Aug. 25.

Faith Lumsden, director of the Governor's Office of Regulatory Assistance, was in Bellingham to address a leadership council meeting of Puget Sound Partnership. She noted that while SSA Marine of Seattle began the lengthy permitting process for the Cherry Point project by submitting some documents to regulatory agencies almost six months ago, those agencies have yet to begin the process of selecting a consultant to oversee the crucial environmental impact statement process.

"The project is really in its very, very early stages," Lumsden said.

The environmental impact statement is a document that will analyze a wide range of potential impacts and determine what SSA Marine must do to prevent environmental damage. But before the drafting of the environmental impact statement can begin, a so-called "scoping process" must be conducted. Among other things, the scoping will include public meetings to give concerned area residents the chance to weigh in on what impacts ought to be studied.

In recent months, public concern has been focused on the potential harmful effects of massive trainloads of coal that would roll through Bellingham and other population centers along the route from Rocky Mountain coal mines to Cherry Point. At full proposed capacity, Gateway Pacific could draw nine loaded trains per day, and the trains would return empty along the same route.

Lumsden said it is likely there will be at least two scoping meetings in Whatcom County and another in the Seattle area, which also would be on the coal train route.

But before all that can get under way, the three key agencies - Whatcom County, the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - need to agree on a consulting firm to conduct the multi-year environmental impact statement process from start to finish. The selection process involves advertising the job to interested firms, getting agreement on the most qualified firm, and then negotiating a contract with that firm.

"I hesitate to even say how far away it is before they even start that scoping process," Lumsden said, adding that it could be a challenge to get the scoping process done and the actual environmental study work under way before the end of 2011. Once the study begins, Lumsden said it will likely take more than a year to ready an initial draft for agency review and public comment.

SSA spokesman Craig Cole said the company agreed with Lumsden's assessment of the regulatory timeline.

Several months ago, at least two members of Gov. Chris Gregoire's cabinet - Commerce Department Director Rogers Weed and Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse - were making public endorsements of the terminal project and saying that their views reflected those of the governor.

But more recently, as the project hit its first wave of public resistance over concerns about coal train impacts and carbon emissions, Gregoire has been taking a more neutral stance.

Lumsden said the governor is frequently asked whether she favors jobs or the environment.

"Her position and our position is that we're for both of them," Lumsden said. "We can recover Puget Sound, and we can do it in a way that is good for economic stability and the state."

Lumsden invited her listeners to play a role in the environmental scrutiny process.

"It is really, really early to be taking a position," Lumsden said. "It's not too early to be giving the issues some thought and making sure your issues are on the table."