Gateway Pacific Terminal gets extension on permit deadline

Whatcom County Planning Supervisor Tyler Schroeder has granted SSA Marine a 90-day extension for submission of a major project permit and shoreline substantial development permit that will be needed for construction of a coal and bulk cargo shipping pier at Cherry Point.

In a letter to SSA Marine Vice President Skip Sahlin, Schroeder notes that the Whatcom County Code imposes a 90-day deadline for submission of the permit applications for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project once an applicant files a preliminary notice with the county. But the code also specifies that the deadline "shall be extended at the applicant's request in 90-day increments."

This is the second 90-day extension for SSA Marine. The company filed its first notice with the county in June 2011. The next potential deadline is March 19, 2012.

Schroeder's letter also says that the State Environmental Policy Act process cannot begin until the permit applications have been submitted. That would get under way in earnest with a "scoping process" to determine what environmental impacts from the project would have to be studied and remedied before permits can be granted.

The county, along with state and federal agencies, has started the process of finding a consulting firm to oversee the environmental impact study, which could take two years or more.

The question of whether to take account of railroad impacts in Bellingham and other places far from the pier site likely will be one of the more interesting issues to be addressed in deciding what impacts ought to be included in the study.

SSA Marine spokesman Craig Cole said the 90-day extension is routine, and it is too soon to estimate when the permit applications will be ready.

"It requires very detailed submissions," Cole said. "There probably will be more requests for extensions. ... This is considered somewhat routine for a big project. The county is being very thorough in what it requires. ... Everybody knows that this thing is under the microscope."

SSA Marine wants to build a pier that could eventually handle export of as much as 54 million tons of coal and other cargoes each year. Trains that would carry that cargo to the pier site, off Gulf Road just south of the BP Cherry Point refinery, would pass through Bellingham.