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Scoping Season: Making Our Voices Heard

August 2012

Cover Story

Scoping Season: Making Our Voices Heard

by James Wells

James Wells worked for 20 years developing information systems in support of environmental permitting and regulatory compliance, and now develops systems that support energy efficiency incentive programs. Recently he has been spending most of his spare time encouraging people to get involved and actively participate in the decision about whether to allow the Gateway Pacific coal-export terminal. His previous columns, on the coal terminal and other topics, are posted at

Editor’s Note: This is our premiere submission from James Wells, a Bellingham resident, well-known on the Daily Kos for his environmental commentary. This article is about EIS scoping, “the process of determining the content and extent of the matters which should be covered in the environmental information to be submitted to a competent authority for projects which are subject to EIA [environmental impact assessment].” (Environmental Assessment Lecturer’s Handbook) EIS scoping typically happens just once in the course of a large project such as the Gateway Pacific Terminal, so our active participation is actually important. To summarize this article for you, there is a process, you can participate, and James will show you exactly how to do it. And we are happy to have James in our family of writers.

The Window of Opportunity

The window will open with a letter. The letter will then be dissected, analyzed and translated into English from the original Permit-Legalese. In that manner, the details will be known. One hundred twenty days, starting on Date A, and ending on Date B. Send your written comments here. Show up at places X, Y and Z if you want to try to score a precious minute or three to speak, in person, with the actual humans who will be conducting the process.

Yes, it will soon be Scoping Season here in Whatcom County. While our seasons are typically defined as rainy, really rainy and even rainier, this season will stand alone as a chance to help define our future. Will it be the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal? Or can we define better choices and help them to become reality?

At the time of writing, the exact dates of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) scoping public-comment window are not known, although they may well be set before this is published. We can only glean from various oracular sources, such as the contract between Whatcom County Planning and Development Services (PDS) and its EIS Contractor CH2M Hill, where a table deep in the Scope of Work section lists the word “August” in connection with the start of the window.

Whatever the start date, one certainty is that once the guillotine drops at the end of the window, public commenting on the scope of the EIS is over. This is the chance, and when it’s done, it’s done.

Oh Yeah. It Matters!

Scoping matters because it defines what concerns will be considered in writing the EIS, which is a document that hugely drives and educates many of the downstream permit decisions. This is the part where, whatever you are concerned about relating to the proposed project, you say “Hey, consider this!”

If you stop and think about that, there’s more going on than a technical decision within a permit process. Limitations on scoping make a foundational statement: If it’s not in the EIS scope, then it doesn’t even exist.

That’s kind of astonishing. At the very beginning of a study that may take several years, we are required to predict exactly what impacts may turn up in that study. A hypothesis, if you will, but you don’t get to revise the hypothesis based on later findings.

That’s why it’s so critical to identify every possible concern about the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) project and provide it as input into the scoping process, with as good and complete logic for each concern as we can muster.

Don’t Leave It to the “Experts”!

There are two huge reasons.

First, the experts don’t have all the answers. Consider this quotable from lawyer Jean Melious, whose focus in her legal practice is on EIS and similar processes:

“It’s amazing how many EIS processes have been materially affected by a concern brought up by a concerned person, where that concern had been missed by the so-called experts.”

An issue might already be “known” in the broad sense, but your perspective, especially if a concern affects you personally, could well be what vaults that concern into the select set of those that are considered to be “significant,” which is basically agency-speak for being worth bothering to look at.

Sure, everybody knows that blocked crossings could delay emergency vehicles, but nobody will know, until we tell them, about specific people whose life depends very directly on access to emergency medical care.

Everybody knows that coal dust flying off the piles could land on nearby fields, causing accumulation of hazardous metals, but nobody will know, until we tell them, about specific places where people have put their love and effort into growing healthy food that they and their neighbors eat, where they may not be able to continue to grow and safely eat that food.

Second, it absolutely does matter how many people care about an issue. Without a clear public statement of concern, a technical or legal issue raised by an expert is often regarded as a technicality, just an obstacle to be overcome.

A good illustration of this comes from a story that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn told at a conference of Washington Lawyers for Sustainability this spring (yes, there really is such an organization). He described how the city of Seattle, having passed an ordinance listing required achievements in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, was considering a transportation plan that was definitely not going to meet the GHG reduction requirements. For those in favor of the “compromise” transportation bill, the failure to comply with the GHG requirements was just a technicality. Absent a clear public statement of concern, even an existing law just didn’t matter.

The permit team absolutely will count how many comments are received on each issue, these counts will be published, and it definitely will matter how many of each that there are. A robust count of comments on an issue could easily be what elevates that issue from a “fringe” topic to a mainstream one.

What if the agency doesn’t add your concern to the EIS scope?

If Your Concerns Are Not Added to the EIS?

Was it all for naught? Absolutely not!

To understand why, it’s worth taking a step back from the permitting process itself. The question of whether GPT will be allowed is not just a permit process. It’s a legal, political and even social decision.

Legally, a well-founded concern that is ignored by the agency is a prime basis for litigation at a later date.

Politically, any elected official who supports granting a permit despite well-founded concerns may have to face you on a future day and explain why they ignored your input.

Socially, a very real concern expressed now, even if not considered at this time by the permitting agencies, can shift our understanding as a community about what matters. The views of all of us will continue to matter as this process chugs along.

Ok. How Do I Do This?

As noted in the very start of this article, some of the specifics and logistics are not even set yet. But this stuff will be published and then we will all know it. More important is how to make your comments, whether spoken or written or both, as meaningful as possible.

To that end, let’s start with an amazing and fortuitous fact. Our local community is activated and here to help. Consider this observation by Jan Hasselman, an attorney for EarthJustice, who has been tracking this permit application closely:

“The people in Whatcom County are without a doubt the most engaged of any population that I have ever seen on an issue of this kind. It’s just amazing.”

Concerned people have organized a great array of information resources that you probably know about, such as, so people can be informed.

In addition, a set of EIS scoping workshops will be held for the purpose of helping people prepare both spoken and written comments. These workshops will take three forms:

For regularly scheduled “open house” workshops, workshops on request for your neighborhood, church or other group and smaller writing sessions at your house or other preferred location, with assistance from a volunteer see the above sidebar.

The workshops use some great material provided by Protect Whatcom ( together with other contributions from members of our community.

To request a workshop for your group, or to get information about the next scheduled open house workshops, please email The mailbox is regularly checked by volunteers.

It’s a certainty that other groups will provide important learning events as well. It’s really worthwhile to get several perspectives on the process, and I strongly encourage checking out the variety of what is going to be available.

An Opportunity For Positive Alternatives

For those who are opposed to the coal terminal, it’s critical to realize that this can’t just be about saying no. It has to be about saying yes to something better. This is our chance to do that.

This is more than a philosophical point. The permit process itself supports “Alternatives Analysis.” If you have ideas for things we can accomplish that meet some of the goals associated with the terminal plan (especially creating jobs!), then those ideas are fair game. There will never be a better time in your life to provide those ideas.

Our EIS scoping public-comment period can become, if we choose, the best opportunity ever for us to put everything good onto the table. If we can come up with a good plan to create 200+ family-wage jobs in our community, it will be one of the most powerful statements we can possibly provide, not just about this decision, but about taking ownership of our future.

Let’s turn the EIS scoping public-comment period into a discussion of all our choices, with honest dialogue about all the great choices available for us to consider.

The Scope of Our Lives

The idea of de-scoping a real concern, once raised, is haunting. It’s wrong.

This is all the more critical as we look around and realize how much we have managed to de-scope all kinds of concerns where we could be taking responsibility.

The technical-sounding term “externality,” now widely used, is a prime example. Basically, it’s any impact caused by a corporation that they can get off their books, such as the health effects of air pollution.

The Legality Shield is widely used as a tool for avoiding responsibility. If it’s not expressly prohibited by law, then it’s legal, and thus OK.

The Money Shield is similar. If we can afford it, then what’s the problem?

As individuals, we are not immune. If we buy stuff from China, then we are helping fuel the demand for ever more coal burners over there.

This should not invoke some kind of purity test, where we are made to feel unjustified in raising concerns about the activities of a corporation because we ourselves are not “pure,” but it’s an important part of the best package of choices we can make going forward.

As individuals, we can find ways to continuously improve our relationship with our natural resources, every year better than the prior one. As a community, we can hold each other and our local businesses accountable to the very highest standards. As a region, state and country, we can find ways to reduce our burn rate on the resources that remain.

There’s a word that describes the state of understanding how all the things we do will affect others, and about how those interrelationships play out at all scales large and small. The understanding that we should really know all the impacts of actions we propose to do.

That word is: Wisdom.

Useful Links

The applicant:

Whatcom County Planning and Development Services has a special page about GPT:

Most complete all around information, Coal Train Facts:

Best information about scoping:

Best information about economic and development issues:


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