Coal Terminal Scoping Meetings Heat Up
by Terry Wechsler
Terry Wechsler is a co-founder of Protect Whatcom and retired public interest attorney
With globalization and the exploding push in North America to export our resources to Asia — particularly tar sands, liquid natural gas, and coal — we in Whatcom County have increasingly found ourselves in the eye of a storm, with Cherry Point at the epicenter due to its geographic advantages for a deep water shipping terminal.
The scoping meetings for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would be the largest coal export facility in North America if built, are heating up.
As described in the December issue of Whatcom Watch, the scoping meetings for GPT began as sort-of town hall meetings with many eloquent and often highly educated speakers identifying not just potential significant adverse impacts, but also what is known, what would need to be known, and how impacts would need to be measured.
The first scoping meeting in Bellingham was dramatic because of the 200 oral comments presented. But much more dramatic was the fact that another 1,600 people, more or less, went to Squalicum High School to listen.
This town hall aspect of the scoping meetings was minimized by Randel Perry, of the Army Corps of Engineers, recently because of hoopla raised about the Ferndale hearing, which opponents claimed GPT hijacked when over 60 speakers made pro-jobs statements. Perry noted written comments receive the same weight in the record and he minimized the substantive nature of the labor statements.
While it is true bald statements that ‘jobs are good’ are not comments for the purpose of scoping, Perry misses the point. As the Yakima Nation noted when complaining of the environmental justice impact of failing to hold a scoping meeting at all in the Tri-Cities area, it is the town-hall aspect of the scoping meetings that served to inform the region of potential impacts of the terminal. The regulatory process does not require hearings at all at this stage.
The scoping meetings provide more process than was required in scoping the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for GPT. Nonetheless, the three agencies jointly conducting the EIS — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County — instructed their consultant, CH2M HILL, to interview key stakeholders and to ask for advice on how to increase the appearance of “fairness” in the process in conducting the scoping meetings.
All the scoping meetings were held within the state in spite of the fact that both the state and National Environmental Policy Acts (SEPA and NEPA) state that impacts beyond the state and national borders must be scoped
The process would be the most fair, of course, if every potentially-impacted community were to be given notice of scoping and have a scoping meeting its citizens could conveniently attend. The Corps published the opening date in the Federal Register and, aside from notice in The Bellingham Herald, no other community in the Pacific Northwest received notice of scoping in their local newspapers, much less notice of how they could potentially be directly impacted.
The CH2M HILL consultants refused to discuss the nature of the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. After its key stakeholder interview, Protect Whatcom’s follow-up letter argued GPT would not be a coal storage facility but a shipping facility moving up to 48 million metric tons (52.91 million tons; conversion factor is 1.10229) per year from the Powder River Basin by rail. Further, the EIS must consider reasonably-foreseeable future cumulative impacts. The combined volume exported at all proposed terminals in Oregon and Washington would total 155 million metric tons, requiring 60 rail trips going and coming daily if every train were 1.6 miles long. This, Protect Whatcom argued, required, for a “fair” scoping process, a preliminary regional cumulative rail-impact assessment that modeled how all that coal would actually travel to the coast.
Bus From Montana
We know the weight of coal trains requires rail upgrades, in addition to new tracks and sidings to accommodate total traffic. Rail communities on those routes will experience not just traffic delays at at-grade crossings, but condemnations of private lands to accommodate expansion. That was the reason a bus with 45 Montanans rolled into Spokane for the fifth scoping meeting.
Billings, Montana residents already experience 60 trains a day, and doubling that would require grade changes at nearly every at-grade crossing, a cost not borne by BNSF. They and residents of other rail communities, together with ranchers already facing condemnations for expansion of the Tongue River Railroad to an Arch Coal mine (proponent of a 45 million metric ton coal terminal in Longview), had already held two mock scoping meetings in Montana. Those who could spend the day, some starting at 4:30 in the morning, went to Spokane to address the co-leads and Washington residents with two-minute statements. They expressed their feelings on getting no jobs or tax revenues but all of the rail impacts of the proposed west coast terminals.
By the time of the Spokane hearing, opponents from the Ferndale hearing had shared their first-hand experiences. Piecing together everyone’s conversations with “supporters” in the queue, it was learned that GPT had hired day laborers, paid them minimum wage, and transported them to the events center to start queuing eight hours in advance of the 4:00 scoping meeting. They had also rented a room at the Center and provided a sandwich buffet.
GPT hired only about 30 day laborers to place-hold in Spokane but, not knowing what to expect after Ferndale and aware that “the Montanans were coming,” Spokane activists did their best to arrive as early as possible to hold as many places as they could for locals and out-of-staters who actually wanted to comment about significant adverse impacts. It was a long, tense day, with familiar GPT faces from the other four hearings and one burly man in particular stalking the queue, glowering menacingly at opponents as a similar man had here. In Ferndale, opponents who received speaker slots were muscled at the door by a man accusing them of line-jumping. In Spokane things escalated, with a GPT employee verbally assaulting a local activist in an apparent attempt to provoke a confrontation.
To be clear, there is no such legal entity as “GPT.” The terminal proponent, Pacific International Terminals (PIT) is a subsidiary of SSA Marine, and PIT never even registered as a taxable entity with the state of Washington before March 2012. Now there is an office on Holly Street for “GPT,” which is actually the business address registered for the state for PIT. For the sake of simplification, and because so many employees, such as Craig Cole, identify themselves as employees of “GPT,” we will also.
GPT’s aggressive tactics did not begin in Ferndale. At the second meeting in Friday Harbor, their employees were dour, rude, and in some cases physically aggressive. Their signs were placed so as to deny any space to the opposition unless theirs were blocked, and they were placed early in the morning.
In Mt. Vernon, there were so many opponents from Skagit, Island and Whatcom counties, the supporters were barely discernible. Nonetheless, their employees place-held a half dozen speaking slots at the front of the line, and labor leaders testified about the need for jobs in Whatcom County. That tactic backfired when numerous area business leaders testified about the negative effects of the terminal and rail traffic on them, their employees, and local suppliers.
The minimum-wage place-holders seemed generally uncomfortable, in their new green tee-shirts, playing the role of stand-in spokespersons, but the line monitors — GPT employees wearing pins and polo shirts, but not tee-shirts — seemed quite comfortable overseeing who was talking to whom in the line. When opponents, who on the main wore red as requested by the Power Past Coal Coalition, whether they were Coalition members or not, attempted to speak to anyone in green, a GPT “employee” intervened and cut off the conversations.
When asked about the confrontational tactics, Craig Cole will simply say that they have no strategy based on aggression, and he claims three opponents had to be removed by the police from the GPT hospitality room in Ferndale when they were allowed to enter and became aggressive. To date, GPT has not furnished pictures, so it is impossible to verify who they were, and some question whether they were paid provocateurs, similar to the 20s and 30s union-busting days, there to deliberately taint the opposition.
It is impossible to learn the reasons for the GPT tactic of ramping up the aggressiveness of its employees, and we will probably never know with certainty who the supposed opposition provocateurs were, but here is what we do know: the town hall aspect of the Ferndale and Spokane hearings was, to a large extent at the former and a smaller extent at the latter, hijacked.
The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports’ spokesperson, Laurie Hennessey, justified the tactic of hiring day laborers to place-hold. One: opponents had used place holders. True, but they weren’t paid, they weren’t lining up eight hours in advance, and they weren’t outsiders brought in to attempt to fill every speaking slot. Two: the meetings were conducted at inconvenient times for people who work. Huh? People who work don’t need … jobs. And, oh by the way, the first hearing, conveniently located and scheduled in Bellingham on a Saturday, saw less than a dozen supporters in the queue. GPT’s (illegal) hospitality tent was there many hours before the doors opened at Squalicum High School, waiting to greet early arriving supporters with coffee, Danish, and pretty pins. Supporters just didn’t show up.
By the sixth meeting in Vancouver, WA, on December 12, things were back to “normal.” Of the 800 attendees, less than 10 percent were supporters, in spite of a massive media campaign and repetitive Facebook posts by Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which claims over 14,500 followers. That is the astroturf organization whose members include SSA, Peabody, BNSF, and other terminal proponents such as Arch Coal and Ambre Energy.
There is a dark underbelly to the GPT and Alliance campaigns to get non-comment, pro-jobs statements submitted by as many people as possible, whether orally or in writing. They don’t address scoping and, in other EIS’s, agencies have noted statements received and not considered because they merely state opinions and are not comments.
GPT’s website asks people to sign the following statement of support: “I support the Gateway Pacific Terminal and request a fair review of the proposal that will put thousands of local residents back to work and be designed in a way that will protect the environment. This project would positively affect my community by creating much needed family-wage jobs, increasing local tax revenue, and utilizing a site that has been zoned for heavy industry for decades. Please ensure compliance with Washington’s high environmental standards, but avoid unnecessary delays.”
There is no way to revise the online form. GPT does say it encourages people to write their own statements, and then helpfully provides only the snail mail address, and not the co-leads’ e-mail addresses or the link to their online form.
Of course, GPT does not provide a link to the co-leads’ comment guide (see sidebar on page 4), which states, “Comments about the merits (pro or con) of the proposal … will not be considered in determining the scope of the EIS.” One commenter on John Stark’s blog page on The Bellingham Herald site, who identified himself as a member of labor, stated that letters of support will flood into the records in numbers “too large to ignore.” When they are ignored — because they’re not comments — it is not difficult to imagine many individuals feeling betrayed not by GPT, but by the process that ignored them, if they are aware of it.
The co-leads have done their best to make clear at scoping meetings what constitutes a “comment,” placing large signs at the front of the room near the speakers’ microphone and making repeated announcements during testimony. After Ferndale, the agencies announced that they needed to do more outreach and educate the public about what comments are. Grassroots activists have been doing that for months, writing scoping guides and worksheets that track SEPA and NEPA guidelines, and holding dozens of workshops in over four counties for thousands of people. The workshops, for as few as four and as many as 200, have gone viral and, in living rooms throughout the region, friends and neighbors are meeting to lend support and guidance on crafting comments.
Opponents have been accused of trying to slant the process by emphasizing the negative aspects of the proposed coal terminals, and unreasonably delay permitting by asking for a regional EIS that considers the impacts of all terminals. Of course, scoping addresses adverse impacts, alternatives, and mitigations. Put another way, comments should address bad stuff that could happen; doing something else or doing “it” somewhere else or just saying “no”; and/or exacting conditions on doing “it.” Further, both SEPA and NEPA require consideration of cumulative impacts, including reasonably-foreseeable future impacts. Nonetheless, Western Washington University spent months addressing a formal complaint lodged after an early scoping forum, organized by students, alleging misuse of public funds to lobby against the proposal.
When scoping closes on January 21, the next step will be publication of a Scoping Report, in which the co-leads identify the impacts they have deemed “significant” and the range of alternatives to be considered in the draft EIS. Very early in the process, the governor’s multi-agency permitting (MAP) team estimated it would take six months to prepare the Scoping Report. That was before they realized they could receive over 10,000 statements. As of December 13th, the co-leads have almost half of the 8,000 statements received to date on their website, according to Alice Kelly of the Department of Ecology.
First, the consultants will have to weed out the “need jobs; terminal good” and “protect environment; terminal bad” statements and identify the real “comments.” Then they must address the thorny issue of the geographic scope because, before identifying which impacts are significant enough to scope, they must determine which to consider at all. Should the Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment consider the potential for spills only from the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the terminal, or along the entire Great Circle Route, through the Aleutian Islands at Unimak Pass, to the South China Sea? They’re receiving many comments that argue for the latter. And, of course, there is the thorny issue of the rail impacts, discussed by Nicole Brown in her article in this issue of Whatcom Watch.
The Scoping Report is bound to address less than opponents want, and more than proponents want, but courts will probably determine those issues are not yet ripe for appeal. It will be interesting to see whether GPT proceeds with the permit application if it appears that even most of what opponents argue should be scoped is addressed in the Scoping Report, because that would be precedent-setting. GPT could be the beginning of a truly brave new world of scoping all adverse impacts of a proposal from net effect on jobs in other sectors, to environmental impacts on the other side of the globe which would not occur but for operation of the proposed activity. I’m pretty sure GPT would not want to open that door.