Cherry Point coal-export port hits two setbacks on environmental front

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The controversial proposal for a major coal-export port to be built at Cherry Point near Bellingham hit two big setbacks this week: environmentalists broke off talks with the developer, SSA Marine, which was also caught building a road through forested wetlands without proper permits.

With this news still fresh, we're taking the opportunity to publish the second installment of the package we posted earlier this summer by Western Washington University journalism students who  took an in-depth look at the proposal. 

Briefly, here are this week's developments:



#  A coalition of environmental groups that had been negotiating with SSA representatives broke off the talks, saying they saw no hope of agreeing with the marine terminal operator on how to protect the important and genetically distinct Cherry Point Pacific herring stock. A permit issued in 1999 allows construction of a bulk port to export 8.2 million metric tons a year of what was assumed at the time to be grain or other agricultural commodities. Now the port developer is seeking to ship up to 54 million tons a year, and most of that would be coal. Because of their involvement in the late '90s, which resulted in a settlement agreement, the groups have a seat at the table as a new permit is developed. Joshua Osborne-Klein, the greens' attorney, said the two sides had agreed to disagree about the wisdom of shipping coal from the would-be port west of Ferndale. That's a debate about climate and sustainability that they were not going to agree about. But the two sides were talking about how to protect the herring and control discharges of ballast water that can unleash ecologically ruinous invasive species.


#  KING5 TV's Jake Whittenberg scored an impressive scoop with his revelation that SSA cleared forested wetlands for a road leading to the site of the proposed port -- but without the proper wetlands-destruction permits. The delicious irony here is that the road was being built in order to do an environmental study of the site. SSA Marine apparently thought the permit issued in 1999 covered this kind of thing. Absolutely not, say Whatcom County officials, who are vowing to make sure SSA is held fully accountable.

Another recent development: The state Ecology Department stepped in to be "co-lead" with Whatcom County in reviewing the project. Floyd McKay produced a worthwhile  look at this turn of events for The bottom line is that although Whatcom County officials will have the final yea-or-nay say on the project, it will receive a lot more scrutiny now. And Ecology may even look at the impact of the mile-long-plus trains carrying this coal through numerous Washington communities.

For more on this, see the stories we posted today by students from Carolyn Nielsen's JOU 450 class at WWU:

# Rachel Lerman and Celeste Erickson explore how local-government officials, particularly in Ferndale, the municipality closest to the proposed port, are eager to receive the millions of dollars in tax revenues the port would provide -- while requiring relatively few services from the city or the county.

# Raymond Flores and Andrew Donaldson weighed some of the competing claims about how the port would affect the local environment, particularly the herring stock.