RE Sources files lawsuit against coal port developer's ground disturbance last summer

A Bellingham environmental group active in opposition to SSA Marine's Gateway Pacific coal and bulk cargo terminal project has filed a federal lawsuit charging the company with violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with grading and tree-clearing at the terminal site last summer.

On Monday, Dec. 12, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities announced that the suit had been filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The suit stems from SSA's unauthorized earth-moving at its site at the end of Gulf Road, south of the BP Cherry Point refinery. RE Sources had announced its intent to file the suit in October 2011.

SSA spokesmen have admitted that the company erred in clearing roadways for geotechnical drilling equipment in the summer of 2011 without obtaining proper permits. Whatcom County ordered the company to repair the damage and pay $4,400 in fines and costs, but RE Sources staffers said the penalty was inadequate given the seriousness of the violations.

"SSA Marine knowingly flaunted an array of county, state, and federal regulations when they built roads damaging forests and wetlands last summer," Bob Ferris, executive director of RE Sources, said in a press release. "And now they want immediate forgiveness for creating impacts that could take decades to recover. That is simply unacceptable."

Ferris could not be reached for additional comment.

The suit was filed by Smith and Lowney, a Seattle law firm that has represented RE Sources in Clean Water Act suits against other firms.

SSA Marine Vice President Bob Watters said the lawsuit would serve no purpose, and said the company had been working hard to repair the environmental damage at the site.

"SSA Marine, and all the government agencies responsible for enforcement, have acted quickly and comprehensively," Watters said in a prepared statement. "SSA Marine has already designed remedies, submitted all the necessary reports, plans, and applications to all the agencies and tribes, and implemented remedies as quickly as we have been permitted.

"In fact, we have already completed erosion and runoff controls such as hydroseeding all cleared areas and installing silt fencing and check dams," his statement continues. "We have had over 30 people working more than a thousand hours on this, including more than 20 outside experts in wetlands, streams, biology, cultural resources, engineering, and other fields."

Watters denied that local, state and federal agencies are taking a lenient approach to the matter.

"The government agencies have been very diligent," he said. "They immediately asked us to stop work, went on site very quickly, obtained all the information they needed, issued orders and directives, reviewed our subsequent plans and applications, and have worked through the permitting with dispatch. We have received permits and approvals from Whatcom County and the State Department of Natural Resources, and have been found in compliance with state stormwater standards by the Department of Ecology."

The permitting process for remaining repair work was nearing completion before the suit was filed, he said.

"The only decisions remaining, which should be completed any time, are final approval of our wetlands mitigation plan and issuance of a wetland permit," Watters said. "Litigation will neither cause nor hasten those actions. Once we have permission, we will implement the final steps of restoration."