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

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:



Robert McClure's picture

Should Port of Seattle hasten air-pollution cleanup?

Our recent collaboration with KCTS Channel 9 on worrisome air pollution levels in south Seattle looked hard at the role played by the 1,800 to 2,000 truck trips that do business at the Port of Seattle on an average workday.

Today the Seattle Port Commission deals directly with the air-pollution controversy we covered.  Staff members are scheduled to brief the commission on the agency's air-pollution-reduction programs.

The background: the Port Commission failed on complicated but essentially 3-2 votes in December 2010 to speed up the air-pollution cleanup process and to support federal legislation giving ports more authority to regulate the trucks. Seattle City Council members Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien, along with state Rep. Dave Upthegrove, asked the commission to go the other way. Commissioner Gael Tarleton appears to have been the swing vote.*

But in January of this year the commission, on a motion by Tarleton, agreed 5-0 to ask its staff to look into what might be done to clean up port-related air pollution sooner, citing "an urgent need to address the public health risks of poor air quality caused by expanding container (ship) traffic, the continued strength of cruise ship visits, and the associated growth in port trucking..."


B.C. natives: Freighter grounding shows folly of shipping tar sands oil through coastal rainforest

A freighter's grounding in the labyrinthine back bays of northern British Columbia shows what a dumb idea it would be to ship oil from Alberta's tar sands area through the area in the Great Bear Rainforest, a band of natives says.

The Gitga'at First Nation pointed to the grounding of the 41,000-ton Petersfield, loaded with soda ash and lumber products, as evidence that supertankers carrying oil have no place in the fragile backcountry waters. The vessel is nearly as long as two football fields.

The best story on the whole affair comes from Mark Hume of the Globe and Mail, who traced it to a problem with the vessel's gyroscope that affected a number of systems on the bridge, including steering.  The Gitga'at observed in a press release:

The ship currently docked at Kitimat looking like a prizefighter with a broken nose is an ugly reminder of the threat posed by proposed pipelines and tanker traffic to the territory of the Gitga'at First Nation.

Canadian and American environmentalists have long  complained that developing Alberta's tar sands -- aka "oil sands" -- would unleash far too many greenhouse gases

Enbridge Pipelines, meanwhile, is planning  construct a pipeline to ship oil from Alberta to British Columbia, where it could be loaded onto tankers for transport to refineries on the West coast. Or, as became apparent recently when a Chinese government-owned firm bought into tar-sands development, the stuff could be shipped all the way to China.

Arctic Ocean set to be mapped and tapped

More than just ice is heating up in the Arctic. U.S. and Canadian ships embarked on a joint exploration to map the sea floor in early August, an effort to determine how far the continental shelf extends from shore and possibly increase each country's claims to resources, reports Elizabeth Bluemink in the Anchorage Daily News. Traditionally, countries hold rights to areas within 200 nautical miles (about 230 miles) of their coasts, but those claims can be extended if they can prove the continental shelf goes beyond that point.

As the ice cap has melted over the years, Canada and the U.S. have waited to explore the Arctic sea floor in search of massive amounts of suspected gas and oil reserves. A third of the world's undiscovered gas and billions of barrels worth of oil could be below the surface, according to Bluemink. If the new data gathered on this exploration proves the shelf extends beyond the 200-nautical-mile-limit, the U.S. could lay claims to the underwater land and all creatures and resources associated with it.

Those favoring conservation of the Arctic rather than drilling don't have to hold their breath yet. Because the U.S. has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, any claims they make to the area will not be recognized internationally.

Researchers are analyzing the data collected on the venture. One find is a massive underwater mountain almost 3,600 feet high that scientists say may help explain the Arctic Ocean's history.

Other researchers are more concerned with the Arctic's future. As the climate warms, many areas in the Arctic are changing rapidly, reports Randolph E. Schmid of the Associated Press. Faster melting ice means changes in growing seasons, which affects many species' ability to find food.