Study: Vessel traffic for proposed Whatcom coal port would increase spill risk, disrupt tribal fishing

A new study of ship traffic that would come with a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point indicates a higher probability of oil and cargo spills. But state officials say the study, dated Nov. 4 and posted to the state Department of Ecology website on Thursday, Dec. 18, is not the definitive word on the hazards posed by ships headed to Gateway Pacific Terminal.

The median number of oil spills in north Puget Sound in 2019 would increase 26 percent with the terminal in full operation, compared to traffic without the terminal, according to the study. That’s a change from about 10 spills a year to about 13. The quantity of oil spilled into the sound would increase 28 percent, according to the study — from 656 gallons to 857 gallons.

The statistical analysis was done conservatively, in that it assumed more risk when available data was insufficient.

Craig Cole, consultant for terminal applicant SSA Marine, issued a statement on the report: “No fuel spill in a marine environment is acceptable. Even though this study shows the potential for any spill to be extremely small, we take very seriously the chance of any spill at all, even a minor one. According to state data, most spills are the result of cross-dock fuel transfer, and GPT will exclude that activity, thus dramatically reducing any risk of spill at the terminal.”

A significant number of the spills would happen away from the dock, where terminal planners can’t do much to prevent them, the study said. For example, the study considered collisions and “bunkering” activities, in which a vessel receives fuel offshore from a barge.

SSA Marine expects to load 487 ships per year, mostly with coal. At full capacity, the terminal would ship 48 million tons of coal and 6 million tons of other bulk goods, such as wheat.

The GPT-bound cargo ships, combined with supporting tugboats and barges, would increase traffic in north Puget Sound by 15 percent, the study said. Vessel traffic in the area of Cherry Point, which the study defines as Lummi Island to the Canadian border, would increase 33 percent. Application materials from SSA Marine say it anticipates the terminal to be in operation by 2019.

Ecology officials cautioned people to not read too much into all the numbers.

“Some people pull out a percentage and just use that as gospel,” said Scott Ferguson, spills prevention manager for Ecology, who worked on the study. “I try to tell everybody to look at the report in total before you isolate certain percentages, to help you understand what it means.”

Results from the vessel traffic study aren’t conclusions in themselves, but are meant to inform more detailed studies coming in a draft environmental impact statement, which is expected to be released in early 2016, said Alice Kelly, the impact statement’s project manager at Ecology.

“This data will feed the actual modeling that would say, if you take this statistical probability and there were a spill, what would that look like? How much shoreline will be impacted?” Kelly said.

The study also will guide a vessel safety committee that will come up with a prioritized list of ways to make the increased traffic safer, Kelly said. Both the study and the safety committee were required by a 1999 settlement between SSA Marine and state agencies and environmental groups that had appealed a Whatcom County decision to issue a shoreline development permit for the terminal.

SSA Marine paid for the study, and Ecology provided oversight. Lummi Nation was a partner, providing data on its fishing activities, and input as the report was being drafted. The work was done by The Glosten Associates, a Seattle-based engineering-consultant firm.

At the same time, the tribe has been showing increasing opposition to the terminal. Tribal leaders toured the Western U.S. and Canada this summer on a totem pole journey to speak about environmental harm they say the terminal would bring to Lummi homelands.

While preliminary, the study raises potential red flags. It concluded, perhaps unavoidably, that increased vessel traffic would interfere with Lummi tribal members’ access to their fishing grounds, which extend southwest into the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca. Interference by ships increases at Cherry Point fishing grounds by 76 percent, according to the study.

Outside of the state’s environmental review, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also reviewing the coal terminal. The corps has tended in recent years to be protective of tribal fishing rights, established in a 1974 federal court decision.

The tribe has objected to at least one other project involving vessel traffic, but negotiated an agreement with the applicant, Fairhaven Shipyard. In 2009, the shipyard was ready to begin operation of a submersible barge. Lummi Nation temporarily blocked the issuance of a corps permit for the activity, citing disruption of tribal fishing. The Lummis and the shipyard later reached an agreement that paid the tribe $10,000 a year for the loss of fishing gear, plus $2,000 for each barge operation in the bay.

A statement by Lummi Nation issued Friday, Dec. 19, in response to the vessel study, highlighted the 76 percent disruption to Cherry Point fishing areas and also mentioned the projected release of 3.6 billion gallons of ballast water into Puget Sound, which can be a source of invasive species.

“With these findings it is clear that the proposed project at Cherry Point will impose negative impacts to the Nation’s ability to practice treaty fishing rights,” Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew said in the statement.