Wednesday, January 4, 2017
KNOCKOUT BLOWS: In a powerful two-stroke decision as his parting gift to the New Year and the final days of his administration, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark announced this week he will expand Puget Sound’s Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve north of Bellingham, adding 45 acres previously considered for a large coal export terminal. At the same time, Goldmark said he will reject a proposal from Millennium Bulk Terminals to sublease state-owned aquatic lands on the Columbia River west of Longview.
“These decisions are in the best long-term interest of Puget Sound, the Columbia River and the people of Washington,” Goldmark said. “They are informed by years of study and consideration, and represent the best way to protect and conserve our state’s waterways.”
At Cherry Point, the Lummi Indian Business Council cited its treaty rights when they asked his agency, the state Dept. of Natural Resources, to add the area originally proposed for the terminal to the reserve’s boundaries. The agency then convened a committee of scientists and conducted an extensive public State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review to evaluate the boundary change. The technical review committee unanimously recommended incorporating the additional 45 acres, citing important herring and eelgrass habitat vital to local salmon runs.
Lummi Nation had petitioned DNR to approve the boundary change to remove the possibility of pier construction to support the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export facility. The agency received thousands of public comments in support of the boundary change.
“Any projects proposed in the future for this site would have to be compatible with DNR’s 2010 Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve management plan, which precludes activities likely to have detrimental impacts on the aquatic reserve,” the agency announced in a press release.
The boundary change represents the final, final nail in the coffin of a coal pier proposal that was rejected last year by a review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that found the proposal would have a material impact on tribal treaty fishing rights. Completed, the GPT project could have shipped up to 54 million tons per year of bulk commodities, sending scores of the world’s largest ocean-going vessels through tribal fishing grounds. Goldmark’s DNR quickly followed the decision by closing the record on the state’s portion of the environmental review, leveraging its decision on the assurance that, without federal approval of the shoreline permit, the project could not move forward. This week’s action effectively removes the possibility of another pier at that location for any purpose.
While it seemed certain the state lands commissioner would agree to the boundary change supported by scientists, it was unclear whether Goldmark would make the decision before retiring from office or leave the decision to incoming Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. Both had pledged a thorough review of the boundary change proposal, but all the diligence and review had occurred on Goldmark’s watch. Staff reported a thick bundle of all associated documents and comments had landed on Goldmark’s desk in November and anticipated a decision within weeks of his review.
“This is a great day, a great start to a new year,” remarked LIBC Chairman Tim Ballew II. “As our elders have told us from the beginning, in our protection of Cherry Point we wanted a way that the sacred site was protected forever and that’s what this decision will do. I am very grateful for Commissioner Goldmark’s recognition of the tribe’s treaty right, and we welcome this news.”
In rejecting the Millennium proposal, Goldmark noted a chronic pattern of failure by the company to provide essential and accurate information. The state had asked for details about the structure of the agreement between Millennium and the primary leaseholder of the state aquatic property, Northwest Alloys. In the wake of last year’s bankruptcy of Millennium’s parent company Arch Coal, the state had also requested information about the viability and financial integrity of Millennium and the international coal export business. To date, none of this information has been provided.
The lease of state aquatic lands was the best option left to stage Milliennium Bank’s export operations after other locations in Longview had been foreclosed.
Together, the two actions in conjunction with the cratering fortunes of coal—which in 2016 crashed to a fraction of its estimated value five years earlier and led to the bankruptcy of Arch Coal and instability of other coal providers—most likely doom the chances of coal export from the West Coast of the United States. Longview and Cherry Point stood on shaky legs, and they were the only of nearly a dozen collapsed proposals left standing.
Whatcom County administration dragged its heels in following suit with the USACE decision and the attendant decision by DNR to close out the environmental review, only belatedly signaling to the project application they would begin steps to close out the record on GPT. In the interim, County Council approved an additional six-month extension on the comatose EIS process. The county’s stalling was almost certainly related to the upcoming election, and whether administrative changes at the governing state and federal agencies would represent a change to coal’s declining fortunes. Franz’s challenger for the office of Lands Commissioner had promised to forcibly reopen DNR’s shoreline permit process in the event he was elected. Franz was more circumspect, but certainly her commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would factor strongly in decisions involving the use of state public lands for fossil fuel export.
Goldmark’s decisions represent closure for Washington citizens apprehensive that changes in the federal administration could weaken the regulatory requirements for such export facilities and bring projects near coma or death—projects that had nearly exhausted the public—roaring back to life.
2017 starts a bit more cheerily than 2016 ended.