Gateway Pacific Terminal

Project scope is established, and Montana reacts

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A trio of government agencies eyeballing the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point has published its work plan for studying the continent’s largest coal port and how it would impact the Northwest and beyond. The plan divides up the work of drafting two Environmental Impact Studies—one by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the other produced jointly by Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Ecology.

The final “Scope of Work,” sent to news media last week, confirms what the agencies announced last summer—the EIS is unprecedented in its reach. The engineering consulting firm CH2M Hill will examine such broadly spread impacts as rail/highway congestion from Wyoming to Bellingham, air pollution from diesel locomotives, climate change and pollution blowback from burning U.S. coal in Asia.

The documents, initially released to the applicants in late December, await final signatures. As would-be developers of the GPT and an adjacent rail spur, SSA Marine and Burlington Northern Santa Fe will share the estimated $7.2 million cost of the full EIS.

The terminal, if it’s approved, could ship as much as 48 million tons per year of Wyoming and Montana coal across the Pacific, along with a possible six million tons of grain, much of it from Montana.

The scope of the environmental study came in for sharp criticism in Bellingham on Monday, from Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund. He was part of a Montana delegation in town to voice support for the terminal. At a gathering facilitated by SSA Marine, Ostlund told reporters that Washington’s Department of Ecology has no business extending its reach beyond state boundaries.

“These are decisions that are supposed to be made by each state,” Ostlund said.  “We don’t interfere with happens over here. They don’t deserve to make decisions regarding our ability to ship our goods.”

There was no evidence that SSA itself would oppose the broad review. A news release quoted SSA Vice President Bob Watters pledging to “support, to work with regulatory processes.”

Before it became a coal port proposal, GPT was promoted as a grain export terminal, and Monday’s visitors boosted the terminal’s importance for moving Montana wheat to Asia. Grain currently gets to those markets by way of ports on the Columbia River, but Montana Chamber of Commerce President Webb Scott Brown said the grain export trade needs competition between ports.

“It never hurts to have another port bidding for our business,” he said.

Brown said coal exports in 2011 experienced a 60 percent increase over the previous year, and now play a critical part in Montana’s economy.

Ostlund added that any reduction in the cost of delivering grain and energy to the market is of benefit to that economy, admitting that overall rail capacity continues to be a limiting factor.

“Our facility will expand capacity and provide farmers and other exporters with an efficient new portal for exports to growing markets in Asia,” Watters said.

A grain terminal development permit, granted to SSA by Whatcom County in 1995, remains controversial. There are questions about the nature of that permit, and whether in fact it still exists.

Bellingham critics question the EIS team’s design of what’s called a “no-action alternative” in the final scoping document. That’s EIS language for what happens to the Cherry Point site if the coal port is not developed. The provision appears to leave SSA in possession of its permit to develop the smaller grain-shipping version of the terminal, should the giant coal terminal fail to win approval.

Opponents argue that permit should have expired long ago for lack of construction activity by the builder.

Importantly, a 1997 legal settlement requires SSA to carry out intensive studies of Cherry Point’s saltwater habitat and the herring, salmon, crab and other creatures that live there. Regulators need that kind of baseline knowledge before they can determine what damage the terminal would cause. SSA agreed to pay for the research in order to settle a legal challenge from a coalition of state agencies and nonprofit citizens’ groups. Seventeen years later, the studies have yet to be completed.

Tyler Schroeder, Whatcom County’s representative on the tripartite scoping team, defends the assumption that the original, smaller version of Gateway Pacific Terminal could serve as the no-action alternative. He says it could make certain the SSA does, at last, complete the research it agreed to.

“They wouldn’t be able to use their permit until the studies are done,” Schroeder said.

One bright spot in the final scoping document has nothing to do with coal, sea creatures or permits at Cherry Point.  Rather, it’s meant to advance public understanding of what the impact study contains. You could call it a plain-speaking directive.

The scoping document requires that…

“…DEIS’s will be written in a way that makes them approachable by lay readers without requiring them to turn to other documents.”

That won’t be easy.  A few pages beyond the plain speech edict, comes this example of what passes for clarity in EIS dialect. 

“The methodology memoranda in support of the report are anticipated to be iterative, because definitions and project justification may result in criteria evolving based on Task 3.1 and 3.2.”

Maybe it just takes practice.


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