County awaits EIS contract signatures, discusses next steps

Published on Wed, Jan 29, 2014 by Quinn Welsch

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When it comes to the Gateway Pacific Terminal, everyone is in the waiting game to see what will happen next.

But that doesn’t mean plans can’t be made. On January 28, Whatcom County Council members met in the finance and administrative services committee to discuss the next steps for reviewing the pending environmental impact statement (EIS) for the massive terminal project slated at Cherry Point.

The EIS is an analysis of potentially harmful environmental impacts that the terminal project may bring with it. The statement is used to gauge those impacts, lessen harm and look for alternatives. CH2M Hill, a Bellingham engineering and consulting firm, is conducting the environmental research.

At full capacity, the dry bulk terminal could ship out 48 million metric tons of coal per year, according to a document released by the co-lead agencies (Whatcom County, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington Department of Ecology). The co-lead agencies have set the scope for the EIS, but before the draft EIS can be submitted, the county must wait for the project developers, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway Company (BNSF) and SSA Marine, to sign contracts that confirm their financial support of the EIS.

The contracts were expected to be signed on January 15, but they will now likely be signed in February, said Whatcom County planning manager Tyler Schroeder.

The draft is expected to be released around March 2015, Schroeder said.

Once it is released there will be a 30-day window with a one-time, 15-day extension for the public to comment on the draft, he said. 

The public will also have a chance to voice their concerns at a public hearing when the draft is complete.

Prior scoping for the proposed terminal drew around 125,000 total public comments between September 24, 2012, and January 21, 2013. Close to 16,000 of those comments were unique, individual comments, Schroeder said.

“The enormity in which we have received communications, positions, questions, concerns, etc., is unprecedented,” said Whatcom County Council member Pete Kremen, suggesting that the time frame and staffing for the council to review the draft EIS is insufficient for the issue. Council members will decide whether or not to approve the permits for the terminal after reviewing the final EIS, which is expected to be issued in 2016.

“When we have a compressed time frame – with the plethora of comments and concerns and the sheer numbers of agencies involved – it greatly concerns me,” Kremen said. “This is not business as usual.”

Whatcom County prosecutor Royce Buckingham cautioned council members from looking too far into the proposal’s official records as it may open them up to attacks regarding potential bias.

According to Washington’s Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, council members are prohibited from stating public opinions on the issue or reviewing information until the final EIS is submitted. The final EIS will include responses to the comments in the draft EIS.

At the council’s regular meeting, members voted 7–0 to extend the Economic Development Interlocal (EDI) agreement between Whatcom County, the city of Bellingham and the Port of Bellingham, for an additional three years for $405,000. The agreement is meant to manage, maintain and grow small businesses in Whatcom County.

The Small Business Development Center, which showcased the EDI’s findings, found that the top expanding industries in Whatcom County in 2013 included manufacturing, professional/technical, transportation and retail. In 2013, the center found that 94 percent of the businesses in Whatcom County were small businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

The center is a federally funded partnership that focuses on stabilizing and growing local businesses.