County council discusses SSA project

Published on Thu, Apr 7, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Members of the Whatcom County Council recently met in committee to discuss their role in approving the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal and were advised on what they could and could not say in public regarding the project.

The council natural resources committee met the morning of Tuesday, March 29, to discuss the permitting process with public works staff and county prosecuting attorney Karen Frakes. Committee members Sam Crawford, Bill Knutzen and Carl Weimer were in attendance, as were council members Barbara Brenner and Ken Mann.

Public works project manager Roland Middleton said the county council is probably about two years away from having SSA Marine’s revised major development permit application before them; an application the council must approve for the project to move forward. SSA Marine originally filed for shoreline and major development permits with the county in 1992 and was awarded them in 1997, he explained.

Since significant changes to the proposed terminal have been made since 1997, including the addition of facilities to handle coal, Middleton said SSA Marine will have to file revisions to the existing major development permit, which the council must approve again. The county council was the only body to approve a permit when SSA Marine first submitted applications in the 90s.

SSA Marine must also get approvals from the Washington state departments of ecology, fish and wildlife, natural resources and the Army Corps of Engineers. SSA Marine has filed a joint aquatic resource permit application, which involves all the state agencies responsible for permitting, Middleton said.

If permitting for the project goes as planned, construction should start in 2013 and take about two years. The $500 million terminal, built to receive 250,000-ton bulk container ships, would sit on the shoreline between the Alcoa Intalco aluminum smelter and the BP refinery. The facility would be a loading and unloading terminal for train cars carrying coal, grain and potash, a mined and manufactured salt containing potassium.

SSA Marine consultant Craig Cole said the draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which will detail any potential environmental impacts the terminal and its operations could have, should be finished in 2012. Public hearings on what potential impacts the EIS will investigate, called the scope, will be held in spring or summer, he explained.

While the county council will not have direct input into the scope of the draft EIS, Middleton said they should take any concerns they have with the scope into consideration when they vote on the major development permit application.

Council members can ask specific questions on impacts not covered in the EIS, he said. The council will vote on the application based on the merits of the project, not just the accuracy of the application procedures, Middleton explained.
Since the council is a permitting body for the project, council members cannot appear to support or oppose the terminal outright before the development permit application is voted upon, Middleton said. The council members must act as impartial judges when it comes to approving or rejecting the development permit, he explained.

Frakes said the council members should not attend any information meetings on the proposed terminal, nor should they investigate the site of the terminal on their own.

Any information they receive on the project should be made available to all the council members and the general public, she explained.

A few council members expressed concern that these restrictions could be difficult to follow. Weimer said those in favor of the project have been adamant about getting in touch with council members.

“The proponents [of the terminal] were very aggressive in trying to meet with us,” Weimer said.

Middleton said the council members need to be cautious of how much of the project they discuss outside of a public setting. However, he explained the council can schedule as many public hearings as they want before the permit application is voted upon.

The Gateway Pacific Terminal involves two permits from the county: a major development permit, which is required for projects of a certain size, and a shoreline substantial development permit, which is required for major projects that come within 200 feet of the shoreline.

Because the area is already zoned heavy use industrial, Middleton explained the terminal would not need county council approval if not for its size.

Different bodies approve the two county permits, Middleton said. The county hearings examiner approves the shoreline permit, but only provides a recommendation to the council on the major development permit, which the council must approve, he explained.

Throughout the permitting process, the public will have a number of opportunities to comment on various aspects of the terminal project, Middleton said. The public will be allowed to offer suggestions on what the EIS should study, in addition to make comments on the draft version of the completed EIS.