A new group called Protect Whatcom has fired up a website as part of a countywide effort to encourage people to get involved in the environmental review and permitting process for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project that SSA Marine has proposed for its property at Cherry Point, just south of the BP refinery.
Organizer Terry Wechsler, who describes herself as a retired public interest attorney, said she did not wish to be critical of the "Coal-Free Bellingham" initiative campaign to get a ballot measure that supposedly would outlaw the passage of coal trains through the city. But she also said that the leaders of that effort are "legally inaccurate" in saying that the local, state and federal regulatory process can't be counted upon to block the coal terminal proposal.
As Wechsler sees it, the State Environmental Policy Act sets stringent standards for environmental review that could block SSA Marine's plans if studies show the coal terminal could not be built without harm to the environment.
She noted that the environmental impact statement for the project will include "no action" as one of the alternatives for the Cherry Point site.
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"We want to teach people how to be a part of the process," Wechsler said. "The process is going to work more effectively with more participation. ... Everyone should consider the impacts on them of a project of this magnitude. When enough public voices speak out about a project, it can stop a project."
The added rail traffic that the terminal could generate will be very costly to overcome, Wechsler said. If the public costs of new road overpasses and other rail crossing improvements are factored in, she believes that the economic benefits of Gateway Pacific will seem a lot less significant.
The group also calls for study of how the coal terminal and train traffic would affect other economic sectors, such as fishing, farming, tourism, home values and Bellingham waterfront redevelopment.
"At what point do the costs exceed the benefits so much that a project is not feasible?" she asked.
Former Bellingham mayor Dan Pike, who is not directly involved with either Coal-Free Bellingham or Protect Whatcom, said he agreed with Wechsler that the environmental review process could succeed in stopping the coal port.
"I fully agree with that," Pike said. "In fact, I'm very confident of that. ... I share faith in the process if people are engaged."
Pike also said he had no wish to criticize the Coal-Free Bellingham initiative effort.
"I think it serves a positive purpose overall," Pike said. "It keeps people focused on the importance of the issue."
Pike doubts that such an initiative will survive a court review, since the Constitution gives the federal government, not local communities, the authority to regulate interstate commerce.
"I don't see them (courts) saying you can just overturn the Constitution without having amendment and conventions to change it," Pike said.
Stoney Bird is a former corporate attorney active in the anti-coal train initiative effort. He argued that the continuing deterioration of the global environment is evidence that the existing system of environmental regulation doesn't do enough. As he sees it, the permit process facing Gateway Pacific is geared to the eventual granting of permits.
"Although a few projects may have been stopped, overall, projects get approved," Bird said. "The system is slanted. The system is biased."
But he doesn't reject Protect Whatcom's approach, either.
"I would never say that people shouldn't pursue the conventional regulatory route, because it might succeed," Bird said.