The Seattle-based shipping terminal company proposing the $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal for a site south of Birch Bay now has until mid-March to submit the necessary permits to Whatcom County.
Whatcom County planning supervisor Tyler Schroeder granted the extension to SSA Marine on December 21 after the terminal company’s vice president for project management, Skip Sahlin, requested the permit deadline be moved on December 19. SSA Marine now has until March 19 to submit the two necessary permits to Whatcom County Planning and Development Services.
SSA Marine wants to build a 350-acre shipping facility in the Cherry Point area that could handle as much as 54 million tons of commodities, such as coal and grain, per year. The company originally submitted two permits to the county in June, but planning staff determined they were incomplete and gave the company until December to submit the completed permits.
Under Whatcom County code, county planning officials are required to extend permit application deadlines 90 days at a time if an applicant requests it. Schroeder wrote in his letter to Sahlin that the environmental review process cannot begin until the
permits are submitted. The Gateway Pacific Terminal involves two permits from Whatcom County: a major project 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.
Once county planning staff review SSA Marine’s permits, a notice will be published seeking an independent contractor to begin work on the massive environmental impact statement necessary for the project. This statement will outline what impacts to its surroundings the terminal could have and how they could be lessened.
Before the impact study can begin, however, county and state officials will work to determine what possible impacts should be studied, called the scope. The scoping process will be local residents’ first official chance to air their concerns about the terminal project to the entities that will be overseeing the impact study.
Initially, county planning staff and SSA Marine estimated January 2012 as the start of the scoping process, but the county’s acceptance of the permit deadline extension will most likely push scoping back later into the year.
The terminal project has encountered delays since SSA Marine first submitted the permits, including the repercussions of a SSA Marine subcontractor clearing trees and grading dirt roads on the site without the county’s permission. Most recently, Bellingham-based environmental group and terminal opponent RE Sources for Sustainable Communities filed a civil lawsuit against SSA Marine for violation of the federal Clean Water Act in connection with the unpermitted work at the Cherry Point site.