Environmental report on Whatcom coal terminal expected no sooner than mid-2016

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine pushes a train load of coal through Bellingham, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.
A Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine pushes a train load of coal through Bellingham, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. The Bellingham Herald

The original schedule for completing an environmental review of a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point was overly optimistic, and Whatcom County officials are preparing a new contract that will continue the work until mid-2016.

The target date for completion of the detailed review, called a draft environmental impact statement, was June 30, 2015, according to the cover letter to the original contract authorizing the review, signed Feb. 27, 2014.

The new contract, expected to be signed around the time the original expires at the end of next month, likely will give the hired consultant CH2M Hill and more than a dozen subcontractors another 13 months to finish the review, said Tyler Schroeder, the county executive’s special projects manager.

The original contract assumed the two coal-terminal applicants — SSA Marine and BNSF Railway, which would build additional rail to accommodate the coal trains — would provide all requested information within the first month. Some of that information is only coming together now. Other information was never provided, particularly by BNSF.

“The delay on the project has been multifaceted. It is a very complex project,” Schroeder said.

Part of the reason for the delay, according to SSA Marine senior executive Bob Watters, was that his company submitted a new site plan to reduce wetlands impacts.

Also, a subcontractor needed to be replaced, which led to an air-quality study originally planned for summer 2014 to be moved to this summer, Watters said.

“In general, it has taken additional time for technical experts to determine the appropriate scope and methodology for the numerous, unprecedented state-required studies associated with this project,” Watters said in a prepared statement on Friday, March 20.

As information trickled in to CH2M Hill — or didn’t come at all — the government agencies overseeing the environmental review began to realize the work wouldn’t get done this year. The state Department of Ecology has been saying publicly at least since December that the review wouldn’t be done until 2016.

“As of right now, we’re still aiming for spring of next year,” Ecology project manager Alice Kelly said on Friday, March 20.

One study by the county and state is intended to show how up to 18 additional coal trains per day — nine loaded and headed to the terminal, and nine empties returning to mines in Montana and Wyoming — would affect rail traffic statewide.

That study was delayed in part because BNSF declined to give current traffic information, claiming it was proprietary, Kelly said.

“BNSF wasn’t required to provide statewide rail data. We went ahead with our own analysis,” Kelly said.

BNSF recommended that the state and county use the Washington State Rail Plan as a basis for information on rail traffic, BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said on Friday, March 20, in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

The rail plan discusses how close certain rail lines are to full capacity but does not go into more specific detail about traffic flows.

Consultants and government officials also are just now figuring out how to conduct the air-quality study along railroad tracks to provide information on the air pollution caused by the coal trains.

“In the original contract, we just didn’t know enough about how to design this study,” Kelly said. SSA Marine and BNSF were telling government agencies they wanted to use existing air quality data rather than conduct an original study, Schroeder has said.

The new contract for the next 13 months or so will include the air study, an offshore habitat survey, and models of greenhouse gases released by burning coal. It may not be the last contract.

“There’s so many moving pieces to pull it all together. If everything works and everything falls into place, we can meet that (mid-2016 deadline),” Kelly said. “It is an optimistic timeline.”

The extra year of work will add about $2 million to the cost of the environmental impact study, Schroeder said. The contract for the first year was for $7.3 million, paid by SSA Marine and BNSF. The applicants were charged $3.3 million for environmental review work done through Jan. 30.

The two applicants also paid $1.9 million for an earlier “scoping” study to determine how wide-ranging the impact study should be.