Politics Blog

UPDATE: Lummi Nation responds to coal terminal redesign

UPDATE: As promised, I am including in this post the response from Tim Ballew, Lummi Nation chairman, to Gateway Pacific Terminal's alternative site plan. I asked specifically about known prehistoric or historic cultural resources on the coal terminal site. Here is Ballew's written statement:

The EIS (environmental impact statement) process has required the proponent to propose an alternate development plan. It is part of the administrate process of the Army Corps. We have expected an alternate proposal but did not anticipate when it would be presented. As reported in PIT's (Pacific International Terminal's) announcement, the new proposal does not change the purpose or function of the terminal. Therefore, both proposals will have the same impact to the Tribe's treaty rights and both proposals will impact Xwe' chi' eXen, one of our usual and accustomed village sites. 

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This picks up some of the pieces left behind (or not properly attended to) from today's story in The Bellingham Herald, "Coal port foes balk at new design."

Gateway Pacific Terminal proponents touted this as big news: Wetlands impacts would be greatly reduced -- by 49 percent -- as a result of the new layout, which incorporated a 353-acre parcel Pacific International Terminals (SSA Marine) acquired after submitting its original application in early 2012.

The GPT announcement, released Tuesday afternoon, July 15:

Gateway Pacific Terminal Announces Nearly 50% Reduction to Wetlands Impacts through Improved Design Bellingham, WA –- The Gateway Pacific Terminal has announced an alternative approach and site configuration that will ensure greater environmental safeguards, including a reduction by nearly half in wetlands acreage affected by the project. The adjusted approach takes into account property adjacent to the original Gateway Pacific Terminal, which was not originally part of the project site. The additional property, secured for wetland mitigation, also provides opportunities for alternative project site layouts not possible under the original property configuration. The result is a 49% reduction in wetland impact. The new approach also means 14% less acres developed overall. All of these steps are in keeping with the project’s commitment to pursue the “least impact alternative” in environmental planning.

Pacific International Terminals, Inc. has informed Whatcom County, the Department of Ecology, and the Corps of Engineers, Co-leads for preparation of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of the reduction in wetland impacts available and requested that the alternative site layout be included in the EIS process.

“By putting forth this alternative site layout, the Gateway Pacific Terminal is making good on what we have said from the beginning – we are committed to protecting the environment and abiding by our state’s strict environmental standards,” said Bob Watters, Senior Vice President SSA Marine. “The law requires us to minimize impacts to the environment, and we feel these changes help us do that. We will be vigilant throughout the process to always be on the lookout for better methods in harmonizing the project with the environment.”

Two environmental groups, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and Protect Whatcom, provided written responses to requests for comment.

RE Sources' comment, from Program Director Kate Blystone, can be found here.

Here's what Terry Wechsler of Protect Whatcom provided:

Protect Whatcom will submit a comment asking the agency co-leads to treat the revised site plan as a revised permit application, and not merely an alternative. The public, agencies, and Washington tribes should be given an opportunity to comment on the effect of the truncated construction schedule for GPT in the context of other new information that has come to light since the close of scoping for the EIS. Because of the revised construction schedule, the terminal would be operating at maximum capacity by 2019 rather than 2026. In the last year and a half, over a dozen additional fossil fuel transportation proposals, have emerged. Most of those are crude-by-rail proposals which are uniquely dangerous and expose communities and the state to potential catastrophies and the need to fund emergency preparedness and site cleanups. Total proposed crude terminals and refinery crude-by-rail projects could add 80 unit trains per week to Washington's rails, which are already reaching capacity. Elimination of phasing may mean GPT is ready to receive 487 vessels per year before agencies responsible for marine spill response are prepared for all scenarios of vessel traffic.   

A correction will appear in tomorrow's Bellingham Herald about Protect Whatcom's "scoping" comment prior to the start of the environmental impact statement (which, according to Whatcom County's Tyler Schroeder, hasn't quite started yet). You can see the comment itself here. 

I had reported that Protect Whatcom requested a smaller coal terminal. (The group now is in fact saying that a smaller coal terminal should be one of several alternatives that come out of the environmental impact statement.) One sentence in the original written comment stood out for me as a summary of Protect Whatcom's actual stance on the Gateway Pacific Terminal site: "Eliminating coal from the current proposal must be a threshold determination given that all stated objectives can be met with other commodities."

Wechsler and I discussed the correction this morning over email.

"There is a major distinction," Wechsler wrote. "We aren't asking that any version of a terminal be approved. What we've argued for is that other versions should be considered as alternatives in the NEPA and SEPA EIS analyses."

Another tidbit that didn't make the story...

Pacific International Terminals in its June 12 letter to the county made it sound as if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had made up its mind about its preferred alternative for coal terminal layout:

"The United States Army Corps of Engineers has indicated that this revised site layout should be considered the preferred alternative under the Clean Water Act and will identify it as such in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act."

Gateway Pacific Terminal indeed would like the new, lighter-wetland-impact option to be the preferred alternative in the corps' EIS, and in that of the county and state as well. The preferred alternative would give that option the inside track to final approval.

None of the agencies has committed to making any option the coveted "preferred alternative."

"It is too early to be conclusive on that," Schroeder said. "We have not made decisions on the on-site alternatives, but the county and (the state Department of) Ecology are looking at all of the scoping comments that were submitted."

Patricia Graesser of the corps said something that I thought departed with the wording in PIT's letter:

"That is the applicant’s proposed project, and we as part of our process do an alternatives analysis to determine what is the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative -- and we’re not there yet," Graesser said. "… We have not gone through that formal alternatives analysis yet."

SSA Marine Senior Vice President Bob Watters didn't say as much but indicated I had misunderstood the paragraph in PIT's letter. Here's what the letter meant, according to Watters:

"The CORP is in the same position as the County, having accepted this as our preferred alternative, and they will each do their own alternatives analysis to hopefully come to the same conclusion that this is the best alternative." (emphasis added)

I only bring it up because I was confused, and one of the sources I talked to for this story was similarly confused. Hope this ends anyone else's confusion.

The 129-page report Gateway Pacific Terminal submitted for its alternative site design said the new layout doesn't increase the disturbance to historical or cultural sites:

The project area is currently known to have three prehistoric sites and several historic sites. The currently permitted location of the trestle spans is elevated and passes over, but does not directly disturb Site 45WH1. PI Terminals sought in each case to develop layouts that avoided any direct disturbance to cultural sites. Site layouts that increased disturbance to cultural sites compared to the currently proposed project were not considered.   

In this context, the report doesn't specifically mention Lummi Nation, but the tribe says it will provide me with its written response to the new layout soon. I will post it here as soon as I see it. The response has come in ... see top of this post.

2015 ELECTION: 2013 revisited?

I assumed the timer had started on the EIS back in February or so, when the contract for drafting the document was signed by all parties. Not so, according to Schroeder, as I mentioned. What I anticipated would be a 2Q 2015 release of the draft EIS now moves into the second half of the year, perilously close to another election season.

Let's just suppose the 13-month clock begins by the end of this month. Then the soonest the EIS draft could be finished would be Sept. 1, 2015. Add a 45-day comment period, and that puts us into mid-October. Give regulators time to digest those many comments and put together the final EIS, and no doubt in my mind we're into early 2016, when a partially new Whatcom County Council could be seated.

In 2013, donations to the four council candidates, plus independent expenditures on their behalf, totaled more than $1 million -- most of it because of the council's looming decision on the coal terminal.

It now looks like the three who did not have to contend with a high profile, environmentally charged election -- Barbara Brenner, Sam Crawford and Pete Kremen -- will be in the coal-powered hot seat starting around this time next year, if they choose to run again.

One more thing. I know how some readers like to know in advance about Cherry Point tours, so....

Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER) is holding its annual summit in Whistler, B.C., July 20-24. Beforehand, PNWER, and Canadian and U.S. officials, are organizing a "border/ports/rail international access tour." The tour hits BP Refinery and the Gateway Pacific Terminal site Friday, July 18. 

The tour stems from a Canadian prime minister/President Obama initiative, begun in 2011, to work cooperatively to promote better security and economic development along the border.

PNWER is "a collaboration of states, provinces, elected officials and businesses that delves into issues that impact the broader Pacific NW Economic Region," GPT spokesman Craig Cole said.