Environmental effects of proposed Cherry Point coal plan debated

By Raymond Flores and Andrew Donaldson

Western Washington University

The tiny nub of forested land poking into the sheltered Strait of Georgia represents a diverse aquatic environment surrounding potentially hazardous, but economically healthy, industry. Rural Cherry Point, west of Ferndale, is the new epicenter in a raging debate over global commerce.

The state aquatic reserve at Cherry Point, established in 2000, engulfs three industrial wharfs and could be home to a fourth if the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal is built. A new dock, trestle, commodity storage area and conveyor belts would mean development on 350 acres of the 1,200-acre project site.

The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Management Plan was adopted in 2010 by the Department of Natural Resources to protect and restore marine habitat, aquatic vegetation and water quality around what was the state’s largest herring stock – one that is now struggling, worrying conservationists. Aquatic reserve lands are set aside for their environmental, educational or scientific interest, according to the management plan.

The management plan was put into effect for the protection of valuable aquatic lands, but recognizes historical use of aquatic zones for industry and commerce. The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve makes up 227 of the 2.6 million acres included in the Washington State Aquatic Reserve Program.

Cherry Point, an unicorporated area zoned for high-impact industrial use, has been the home of the BP and ConocoPhillips oil refineries, as well as the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter, for decades.

New Navy plan OKs increased use of sonar off NW coast; will it hurt orcas, whales?

The U.S. Navy decided this week it would go ahead with underwater explosions and ear-piercing sonar in the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary despite protests by environmentalists the training exercises would hurt orcas and other imperiled marine creatures.

Curiously, the decision has yet to prompt any news coverage that I can find. And yet we're at a crucial juncture because the National Marine Fisheries Services is finalizing its proposed conditions for allowing the Navy to go forward with beefed-up training efforts in its Northwest Training Range Complex.

Earlier this month a bunch of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council appealed to Northwestherner Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (and therefore NMFS), not to alllow the Navy to harm orcas, whales, and other marine creatures.

Among their comments to Lubchenco:

In this regard, a 2008 NOAA report specifically identified both military activities and underwater noise pollution as two of several emerging threats to the Olympic Coast NMS. ... In particular, it found that "an increase in Navy activity or areas of operation, if not properly controlled, could have potential to disturb the seabed, introduce pollutants associated with test systems, and produce sound energy that could negatively alter the acoustic environment within the sanctuary."

Rita Hibbard's picture

SeaWorld tragedy shows wisdom of Washington state being first to ban whale capture from its waters

The recent death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau  has focused attention once again on the issue of whales in captivity.

Many Washington residents don’t know the happy ending to the tragic story of whaling captures in Puget Sound that once netted dozens of whales for SeaWorld performances.

It was the intervention of former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, then aide to Republican Gov. Dan Evans, that helped put a stop to the brutal captures that split apart whale families and pods and resulted in the collateral damage deaths of dozens of marine animals. Munro witnessed one of the captures in which aircraft and explosives were used, and subsequently filed a lawsuit that led to an agreement with SeaWorld to stay out of Puget Sound. That was in 1976, after the Budd Inlet whale capture that same year when six whales were taken captive.

Writing just a few months ago in the Olympian, columnist John Dodge, who was also on hand that day, described the experience:

The Munros were in their sailboat that day. They watched the violent whale capture and heard the whales inside and outside the nets, crying to one another in their little-understood language.

I was on the shoreline, a (Evergreen State College) student, working as a reporter for the Cooper Point Journal, and was struck deeply by those same eerie cries. Those sounds are etched in my memory and the Munros’ memories forever.

“When we went sailing and saw this accidentally, it changed our lives,” Munro said.

Rule could double distance between boats and whales

Canada and the United States are working on new rules that could nearly double the distance boats must stay away from resident orca whales in Puget Sound to protect them from underwater noise, reports Judith Lavoie of the Times Colonist. Boats must stay just over 100 yards from whales, according to current whale-watching guidelines in Canada and the U.S. The new proposal would increase that distance to 200 yards and set up a half-mile area where boats are not allowed along the west coast of San Juan Island from May through September. The whale-watching industry  is stunned by the development.

"A lot of people are pretty shocked. It doubles the global standard for whale watching. It would be like doubling the speed limit on the freeway or cutting it in half," says Shane Aggargaard, president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

– Emily Linroth

Cut CA farms’ water to help Northwest’s orcas?

One doesn’t usually think of water used on farms in California as being in competition with the orcas of the Pacific Northwest. But that’s what a new federal endangered-species plan does, pointing out that water withheld from streams where salmon breed in the Central Valley affects orcas’ food supplies. Orcas specialize in salmon, particularly the Chinook. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s report could be used to restrict irrigation water in the valley, the nation’s leading producer of farmed goods. Les Blumenthal of McClatchy News Service does a good job highlighting an unspoken contradiction in the feds’ plan: While the California plan clearly says harming salmon hurts orcas, a separate Bush-era plan on the salmon stocks of the Columbia and Snake rivers – aimed at keeping intact electricity-producing dams that harm salmon – downplays the risk to orcas. It says additional salmon for orcas to eat can always be produced in hatcheries. Look here to find out why hatcheries might prove a problematic solution.