Whatcom County orders SSA to repair road work at Cherry Point

Interested persons have until Sept. 26 to comment on Whatcom County's latest regulatory action aimed at fixing the environmental damage caused by unauthorized road clearing work at SSA Marine's Cherry Point shipping terminal site.

Whatcom County Planning & Development Services supervisor Tyler Schroeder has issued a "mitigated determination of non-significance" in the matter, agreeing to issue permits for the road-clearing work retroactively on the condition that SSA Marine take specified steps to undo the damage.

"The lead agency for this proposal (Whatcom County) has determined that with proper mitigation, no significant adverse environmental impacts are likely," Schroeder says in his report on the matter.

That finding also notes that "an aggrieved agency or person may appeal this determination to the Whatcom County Hearing Examiner."

Comments may be sent to Schroeder at the county planning office, 5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham WA 98226. Appeals can be filed at the planning office during the 10 days following the comment period, with a deadline of Oct. 6.

In early August, the county fined the Seattle-based company $2,000 for its actions and ordered payment of an additional $2,400 to cover the county's staff costs in dealing with the issue.

A company spokesman said a company subcontractor had done the land-clearing work to clear a path for geological testing equipment, in the belief that the work was acceptable under county regulations. But the company later issued an apology and promised to fix up the damaged areas.

Schroeder's report sets three conditions for the company:

No further land-clearing may be done in connection with the geotechnical work.

Damaged areas - a bit more than 9 acres - must be restored to the county's satisfaction.

Wooded areas that were cleared must be reforested.

If the conditions are not met, Schroeder's report warns that Whatcom County will notify the Washington Department of Natural Resources indicating that "the county has become aware of conversion activities to a use other than commercial timber operations."

That's a big deal, because if DNR finds that SSA engaged in unauthorized conversion of timberland, state law would allow the imposition of a six-year moratorium on development of the site.

SSA avoided this sanction earlier when DNR officials determined that the tree-clearing for the geotechnical equipment, while illegal, did not meet the legal definition of "conversion activities" that would trigger the moratorium.

SSA is in the early stages of obtaining the array of local, state and federal permits it would need to construct a massive new shipping terminal for coal and other bulk cargoes at a site just south of the BP Cherry Point oil refinery. The proposal has touched off a firestorm of opposition because of its potential effects on everything from global warming to railroad traffic through Bellingham.

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