What environmental impacts should a new coal terminal project address?
My column in last week’s Cheney Free Press (“Coal exports: Are they opportunity or curse?) addressed a number reasons for and against constructing the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, Wash. This week I address issues concerning the scope of the project environmental impact analyses required by federal and state law.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed by President Nixon Jan. 1, 1970, requires federal agencies to undertake an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to taking any action that could significantly impact the environment. The state of Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) has similar requirements for state agencies.
In the case of the Gateway Project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County would need to grant appropriate permits to enable construction of the project. These entities must therefore prepare an environmental impact statement to evaluate the potential environmental consequences of granting such permits. They are “co-lead” agencies for this review.
NEPA and SEPA also require agencies to involve the public in determining the range of impacts considered and provide opportunities to review and comment on the draft EIS. The EIS must address the scope of both environmental and socioeconomic impacts that could reasonably be anticipated to result from taking the proposed action.
When an agency expects to prepare an EIS, it must publish notice of its intent to do so. The notice must include a description of the proposed project and the anticipated scope of its intended analyses. Next, the agency must offer people in the expected area of impact an opportunity to review and comment on the scope of issues the agency proposes to consider. This “scoping” process generally takes the form of one or more public meetings in the potentially impacted area(s).
The Corps, Ecology and Whatcom County held a joint public scoping meeting on the project at the Spokane Fairgrounds Dec. 4. The meeting reportedly drew around 800 participants including representatives from Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway, labor and trade, and citizens concerned about potentially adverse impacts. This was one of seven scoping meetings being held throughout the state.
Interestingly, the majority of citizens at the Spokane meeting, including members of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, appeared to be from Montana. Several requested a scoping meeting be held in Missoula.
As initially proposed, the analysis would consider only the impacts that would occur at the construction site of the terminal and a short railroad spur that would be built to allow trains to access the site. It would not include impacts along the existing rail corridors servicing the site, nor would it include impacts of increased coal mining or the production of other commodities the terminal would handle. There would also be no analysis of potential impacts to climate and other aspects of the environment due to burning the coal passing through the terminal. Finally, there would be no consideration of the potential cumulative impacts that could result if similar facilities are built at other locations along the Oregon/Washington coast or, for that matter, current impacts of an existing export terminal on the coast of British Columbia.
Project proponents urged a narrowly focused scope, whereas those opposing the project argue for expanding the analysis to transportation corridor, mining, and possibly cumulative and climate impact issues.
Those who feel that the scope should be expanded have several ways to participate in the scoping process and subsequent stages of environmental review. Review project information at the official Corps/Ecology/Whatcom County website: http://www.eisgatewaypacificwa.gov. Those who missed the Dec. 4 scoping meeting may check out a “virtual” scoping meeting at that website. It also provides information on how to participate in the scoping process, obtain answers to questions, and be added to the project mailing list.
The scoping period runs through Jan. 21, 2013.
John Taves retired in 2011 after 35 years with Bonneville Power Administration where he spent the last half of his career as a constituent account executive working with public interest groups and state of Oregon elected officials on a variety of issues of concern. He is an active Cheney City Councilman, however the views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the council.