More than 124,000 comments were submitted for the review of the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point, but the vast majority were form letters or emails, the review agencies said Wednesday, Feb. 6.
The comments came in during a 121-day period that ended Jan. 22, 2013. The Gateway Pacific Terminal, proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle at an industrial site south of the BP Cherry Point refinery, would be a loading point for coal and perhaps other bulk cargoes shipped to the pier by rail. At maximum capacity it could ship 54 million tons of bulk commodities a year, including 48 million tons of coal, to markets in Asia.
About 108,000 of the comments were form letters or emails, submitted by people who responded to one of at least 24 organized comment campaigns.
Only about 16,000 of the comments were uniquely worded, according to a joint news release by the review agencies: Whatcom County, the state Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Consulting company CH2M Hill has been sorting through and organizing the comments, a process that is expected to take many weeks. It then will issue a scoping report to the review agencies.
"Because the volume of comments puts us in such unprecedented territory, we don't have a specific estimated date for that report," Ecology spokesman Larry Altose said.
That report will outline the recommendations of what potential project impacts should be studied.
Once the scoping report is complete, the agencies will develop a directive on how to prepare the environmental impact statement. The EIS will evaluate potential impacts of the coal terminal and possible mitigation measures.
"We're probably a few months away from even seeing even a draft on the environmental impact statement," Altose said.
Most of the comments were submitted in the final days of the scoping period. An estimate a week before the deadline put the number at more than 14,000 comments.
In addition to the vast number of comments submitted electronically, 1,419 hand-written comments and 1,207 verbal ones were given at seven public meetings held around the state on the project.
The review agencies have repeatedly emphasized that all comments will be treated equal no matter what form they were submitted in.
Terminal backers say the project would generate millions in tax revenue, thousands of short-term construction jobs and more than 1,000 direct and indirect permanent jobs.
Opponents say the project would disrupt life in Bellingham and other places with as many as 18 additional trains rumbling daily through the city, snarling traffic at crossings and causing health problems from diesel exhaust, while worsening climate change from coal-burning in Asia.
BNSF Railway officials say they can handle the load by doubling the six-mile railroad line that extends west from the main line at Custer to the existing industries at Cherry Point. That rail extension is part of the scoping process.
Exactly how many people commented is not clear. In sorting through comments, CH2M Hill has found that some people submitted comments more than once or to more than one involved agency, Altose said. Some people submitted a comment for each issue they felt warranted study.
"There are some people who commented multiple times, so the number of people commenting is less than the number of comments," Altose said.
In addition to weeding out duplicates, CH2M Hill is breaking down comments by topics. Those are part of determining what should or should not be studied.
Despite the avalanche of comments, sheer volume will not determine what is studied.
"What we're looking for is information," Altose said. "It doesn't matter if the information came from scores of people or one person."
Comments are being posted online as CH2M Hill sorts through them. Though Whatcom County contracted with the firm for the work, SSA Marine and BNSF must pay for it.
Those comments aren't being categorized as directly for or against the project. The form letters and emails will be listed at some point, so people will be able to identify the views on those, Altose said.
While there's no official database of public involvement on such issues, the number of comments and various sources of them make the Gateway Pacific public process stand apart.
"We're fairly confident that this has drawn unprecedented participation," Altose said.
SEE THE COMMENTS
All the comments received in the scoping process for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project are being posted online. They can be sorted or searched based on when they were submitted, the submitter's name, city and what issues they address, among other options. Go to eisgatewaypacificwa.gov and click on the "scoping comments" link on the right. (Not all received comments have been posted yet.)
Comments also are being sorted by the government, public agency or tribe that submitted them. From that main page, scroll over "Resources" at the top and click on "EIS library."