BELLINGHAM, Wash. — About 100 people gathered Tuesday night to protest the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal — one of a half-dozen such proposed Northwest gateways for Rocky Mountain region coal to be shipped to Asian markets.
Some protesters wore gas masks. Others carried signs with pictures of sick fish and slogans like “No Dirty Coal” and “Please start caring. Save the herring.”
If the proposal for the Gateway Pacific Terminal is approved that could mean nine trains per day passing through Bellingham and berths for three large ships at the Cherry Point industrial facility north of the city.
SSA Marine has submitted a permit application to build a bulk export terminal near Bellingham. If approved, the terminal will be large enough to handle up to 54 million metric tons per year. That could include wheat and grains but the majority will be coal, which will be delivered by train from mines in Wyoming and Montana and then shipped across the Pacific to China and other destinations.
But first things first. An EIS or Environmental Impact Statement must be completed.
That’s when the Department of Ecology and other state agencies look at how a proposed project might affect the environment.
And this EIS is going to get a lot of attention, says Jeannie Summerhays, Northwest regional director for the state Department of Ecology.
“This project has a significant amount of public attention. There’s a lot of concern about the proposal and so just from that aspect alone, the public interest, the concern related to the project is very high.”
The Department of Ecology, Whatcom County officials and the Army Corps of Engineers held a public meeting to explain how the EIS process works, even though the actual process hasn’t started yet. It’s just about to get into the pre-scoping phase. That’s when different agencies take comments from the public about what should be looked at in the official EIS.
Some people are already worried that things will be left out. One group, The Whatcom Docs, wants an assessment of the human health impacts of increased train traffic in Washington. Dr. Frank James says your typical EIS isn’t set up to handle that aspect of a project like this.
“An Environmental Impact Statement is really about protecting the environment and there’s a concern about human health in it,” he notes, “but not to the degree and not in the detail that is really needed to assess this project.”
The Department of Ecology says health impacts will be part of the EIS, but that right now it’s too early in the process to say exactly how they will be studied.
SSA Marine operates terminals all around the world. It will pay for the Environmental Impact Statement for the one proposed for Bellingham, but they won’t have any say over how the statement turns out.
Craig Cole, a spokesperson for SSA Marine, says the company wants an even and balanced process.
“This project will have to prove itself to get permitted. What we’re looking forward to is an environmental review process that’s based on science, facts and not emotion. That’s all the company asks for.”
But emotions in Bellingham right now are intense. At the end of the presentation at Bellingham High School, people in the audience came forward to share their thoughts about the proposal. The first comment came from a woman who introduced herself as T. King:
“My question is what makes you think any of this is even necessary because we say “No,” right here right now we’re saying “no.”
Her words were met with applause from the crowd.
The public will soon have the opportunity to formally comment about what issues should be included in the Environmental Impact Statement.
Governmental agencies say the whole EIS process could take a year to complete.
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