Whatcom County mandates extended comment on coal terminal study

BELLINGHAM — The Whatcom County Council has approved a modified version of an environmental consulting contract for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project that mandates an expanded public comment period at the first stage of the regulatory process.

The agencies involved in that process — Whatcom County, Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — had envisioned a 60-day period for public comment on the so-called “scoping phase” that determines what issues must be studied as part of the lengthy environmental review of the coal and bulk cargo shipping pier that SSA Marine hopes to build at Cherry Point.

But at their Tuesday, June 5, meeting, County Council members said they had received numerous complaints from constituents that 60 days was not long enough. A proposed contract with consulting firm CH2M Hill did not specify a length for the comment period, and council members decided to insert one, even though the change must be approved by CH2M Hill, the Army Corps and Ecology.

“Our job as a County Council is to represent the people of Whatcom County,” said council President Sam Crawford. “We’ve heard loud and clear that the time frame (for public comment) may not be reasonable.”

On Crawford’s motion, the council unanimously agreed to specify a minimum of 120 days for public comment on the scope of the environmental study.

They then gave unanimous approval to the full contract, after approving further amendments from council member Ken Mann that clarified language prohibiting conflicts of interest between CH2M Hill, SSA and BNSF Railway Co., which is proposing a double-tracking of its Custer-to-Cherry Point line to get coal trains to the proposed new terminal.

In a Wednesday, June 6, email, Whatcom County Planning Manager Tyler Schroeder said he had notified the Department of Ecology and the Army Corps of Engineers about the council’s position on the 120-day comment period. Those agencies will check to see if that would create any conflict with other state and federal legal requirements.

Schroeder said he also expected to contact CH2M Hill about the county’s preferred contract language.

“I anticipate that CH2M Hill will be in agreement to the council changes,” Schroeder said.

A Tuesday morning contract review by the council’s finance committee had ended in a 2-1 vote against the contract, with Mann and Carl Weimer opposed and Crawford in favor.

At the committee meeting, County Executive Jack Louws managed to allay some council members’ concerns by pledging that documents and reports developed by CH2M Hill during the environmental study process would be posted on the county’s website as soon as they were legally available for public release.

On Wednesday, council member Weimer said the agreement approved Tuesday wasn’t perfect, but said the 120-day comment period and clarified conflict-of-interest language had eased his most serious concerns.

Weimer said he was still unhappy that preliminary agreements with CH2M Hill contain language that would seem to limit the environmental study process to coal terminal impacts in Washington state, but said he thinks wider issues, such as the global impact of coal burning, still could be added during the scoping process.

Although the contract with CH2M Hill calls for SSA and BNSF to pay all of the county’s direct costs, and perhaps some portion of indirect costs, during the regulatory process, Weimer said the contract could have contained stronger language to make sure none of the indirect costs wind up being borne by taxpayers.