BELLINGHAM, Wash.--A proposed Puget Sound terminal that would ship millions of tons of coal to Asia drew opposition from most speakers Oct. 27, with many opponents at a public meeting calling for a broader environmental impact statement analyzing impacts stretching from Montana strip mines to Chinese smoke stacks.
Some 1,800 people attended the first of a series of seven scoping meetings on the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would be located about 12 miles south of the Canadian border. The site is just north of Bellingham, where some 81,000 people live sandwiched between a snow-capped volcano and Puget Sound's San Juan archipelago in what has been dubbed one of the most livable small cities on the West Coast.
Of just over 200 speakers at the scoping meeting convened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Ecology, and local county government, fewer than 10 spoke in favor of the terminal. While project proponents point to the 1,250 direct and indirect jobs the project would bring when up and running, opponents dismiss that benefit as being far outweighed by a multitude of negative economic, health, environmental, social, and cultural impacts.
SSA Marine, the largest U.S. terminal and stevedoring company, has 51 percent of the proposed project with the other 49 percent held by Goldman Sachs Infrastructure Partners. Gateway, the largest of five coal terminals proposed in the Northwest, would ship up to 48 million metric tons annually. If all five come to fruition, U.S. coal exports would more than double at maximum output. The U.S. exported 107.3 million short tons of coal last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Peabody Energy, the biggest private-sector coal company in the world, has contracted to ship up to 24 million metric tons of coal through the terminal. The coal would travel from Montana and Wyoming's coal-rich Power River Basin to Gateway on Berkshire Hathaway's BNSF Railway Inc.
Speaker after speaker rose in the Squalicum High School gymnasium making the case that the scope of the EIS should encompass not simply the impacts associated with Gateway site, but instead look at the cumulative impacts of all five proposals beginning at the mines and including the rail routes, at each proposed terminal, on the maritime shipping lanes and the environmental consequences of burning the coal in Asia.
Lummi Nation council member Jay Julius was the first to speak as a representative of a tribe whose fully litigated treaty fishing rights include the waters off the Gateway site. Those waters are also within a state aquatic refuge that is home to key herring habitat. Herring are prey for endangered king salmon, which is the prime food source for endangered orca.
“Lummi says no,” Julius said. “I am personally a fisherman. My great-great-grandfather was a fisherman and so were his ancestors. To us fishing is culture and culture is fish.” He asked for a study on “the spiritual impacts this will have on my people.”
Before the meeting, Julius told BNA that the Gateway site contains native cemetery and archaeological village sites. “In addition to those sites, the impacts it [Gateway] will have on the earth over the next 40 years will be felt by our children's children forever,” he said.
Following Julius were 99 more speakers in the gymnasium and over 100 in the school's auditorium. A mother with two kids in tow stood and expressed worry about the health effects of coal dust billowing from the mile-and-a-half-long coal trains, nine of which would pass by her house each day. The trains are a “threat to our property values and our health,” Peggy Lupo said.
Family farmer Nicole Brown said she fears losing market share for her organic greens, which rely on our “clean and green reputation.”
Multiple speakers asserted variations on the theme that with hundreds of extra transits by huge Post Panamax vessels plying Puget Sound, an “oil spill would devastate the orcas” and the salmon upon which they feed.
Thom Prichard said the trains that already run through town set his house rumbling. “At 3 o'clock most mornings, I'm awakened by some guy holding on the horn.” Prichard was one of many who cast the conflict in terms of a populist struggle of people versus a business elite. “This is another case of big business getting all the benefits at the cost of the citizens,” he said.
Bellingham resident Laurie Stein said: “This whole scoping process is a rigged game based on the assumption that the Gateway Pacific Terminal and increased coal trains will happen and all we need to do is negotiate compensation for the endless list of negative impacts. There is no compensation for the price to be paid for the immense corporate profits projected at our expense. Projected corporate profit trumps whatever negative impacts we enumerate, from local to global.”
Global impacts were on the minds of many who spoke of how burning 48 million metric tons of coal in Asia will accelerate climate change and release mercury, selenium, cadmium, and other toxic heavy metals that will cross high over the Pacific, rain down on U.S. territory, and enter the food chain.
“I urge the Army Corps of Engineers to take a global perspective,” said Bellingham resident Harvey Schwartz. “Study how this project would affect global warming. Consider the blowback effect of burning coal in Asia dropping into the Pacific, raising its acidity, and adding to the effects of coal trains here.”
The concerns echoed ones raised to the Corps of Engineers in April letters from the Environmental Protection Agency and the governor of Oregon about another proposed coal project on the Columbia River at the Port of Morrow, the smallest of the five proposals at 8 million metric tons annually.
EPA called upon the corps to conduct a “thorough and broadly-scoped cumulative impacts analysis of exporting large quantities of Wyoming and Montana-mined coal through the west coast of the United States to Asia.” The letter--which lists a litany of possible impacts on human health, endangered species, global warming, and traffic--does not stop with the Morrow project; instead, it urges the corps to consider the impact of all the proposed projects (192 DER A-37, 10/4/12).
“Consider, for example, the cumulative impacts to human health and the environment from increases in greenhouse gas emissions, rail traffic, mining activity on public lands, and the transport of ozone, particulate matter, and mercury from Asia to the United States,” said the April 5 letter signed by Kate Kelly, EPA Region 10 director of the Office of Ecosystems, Tribal, and Public Affairs.
Randel Perry, the corps' project manager for the EIS, told BNA before the meeting that EPA is an official “cooperating agency” and will be providing input throughout the process.
Oregon Gov. John A. Kitzhaber (D) followed the EPA letter with one of his own (81 DER A-25, 4/27/12).
Calling greenhouse gas emissions a “major concern,” Kitzhaber's letter said that “if the United States is going to embark on the large-scale export of coal to Asia it is imperative that we ask--and answer--the question of how such actions fit with the larger strategy of moving to a lower-carbon future.”
“The environmental effects of further Asian coal-fired generation, in terms of air quality impacts on the west coast of the United States, have not been analyzed,” Kitzhaber said in the press release announcing the letter. “Increases in ozone, mercury, and particulates could have both significant environmental and economic effects in this country. I have concerns about proceeding in this direction in the absence of a full national discussion about the ramifications inherent in this course of action.”
While not making oral comments at the meeting, SSA Marine Senior Vice President Bob Watters told BNA Oct. 26 that conducting an area-wide or programmatic EIS would not be appropriate. He said calls for a programmatic EIS are a “slippery slope” based on ideology rather than on law. “What they [project opponents] are doing is that they are singling out coal; there is an agenda with coal.”
Watters said SSA will rely on extensive written comments to provide its input to the corps on the proper scope of the EIS.
After the meeting Watters released a prepared statement: “If you separate the opinion from the substantive comments today, there have been a lot of thoughtful as well as heartfelt suggestions for the EIS. And that's good, because at the end of the day, SSA Marine wants a very thorough, science-based evaluation of our project.”
Perry, the corps official, told BNA that no decision would be taken on whether to conduct an area-wide EIS until after the scoping process is complete. Perry dismissed the idea of conducting a programmatic EIS saying that the corps has no program dealing with coal traffic in the Northwest.
To access a government website on the Gateway EIS process, go to http://www.ecy.wa.gov/geographic/gatewaypacific/.
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