by Michael Riordan
Last week coal-terminal advocates won an apparent major victory when an Army Corps of Engineers official told Congress it would not perform an area-wide or programmatic review of the proposed projects’ environmental impacts.
Instead the Corps will only consider the projects on a case-by-case basis, claimed Jennifer Moyer, acting chief of regulatory programs. And the Corps would focus narrowly on the impacts on US waterways, over which it has regulatory control.
This decision leaves the door wide open to legal challenges, which are almost certain to occur. The Corps hopes to address only those areas over which it has specific control under the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act. But that approach ignores the many thousands of scoping comments submitted by Northwestern citizens concerned about coal dust, diesel emissions and blocked crossings all along railways bringing the dirty black mineral from mine to port.
And what about the wider impacts of carbon-dioxide emissions, climate change and ocean acidification?
As the lead federal agency on the projects, the Corps bears a far broader responsibility than what is specified by its narrow domain of legal authority. It cannot shirk this responsibility simply by claiming it lacks regulatory control outside of the nation’s waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency has suggested as much, requesting that it assess the projects’ area-wide and climate impacts, too.
But the Corps has a history of being the dutiful handmaiden of water-project promoters, an entrenched redoubt of mostly southern Congressmen and Senators who have long controlled the cognizant appropriations subcommittees. The record shows that they care much more about coal, oil and gas than about the quality of air and water in the Pacific Northwest.
All is not lost, however. Concerned mainlanders must now turn to the Washington state Department of Ecology, and parallel agencies in other states, to assess any impacts on air quality, health and local economies. Under the State Environmental Policy Act, the scope of its assessment need not dovetail with the national one. Nor should it.
And we must insist that our agencies do thorough reviews that address state and local concerns much more vigorously than the Corps and its Congressional overseers might prefer.
Crucial reviews of local air-quality impacts, such as due to the coal dust and diesel fumes, will be the responsibility of the Northwest Clean Air Agency headquartered in Mount Vernon and led by former Bellingham mayor Mark Asmundson. While its mandate includes Island, Skagit and Whatcom Counties, San Juan County is curiously absent from the list. Perhaps our Councilors can take a close look at this oversight and rectify the situation.
The impacts of coal dust and other toxic materials polluting Salish Sea waters will probably be evaluated not only by Ecology but also by the Division of Natural Resources led by Peter Goldmark. For the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal piers would extend into the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, which is partly aimed at restoring the dwindling herring population that spawns there every spring. Lying near the base of this inland sea’s food chain, these herring are important to the diet and health of Chinook salmon and southern resident orcas.
Goldmark will face a difficult, highly politicized decision if the matter ever reaches his desk. He will need strong citizen support to be able to decide against the project.
And since the Corps is responsible for navigable waterways, any marine impacts that affect the San Juan Islands are presumably under its purview. But one can imagine it will try to shirk them, too. Here we need to call upon Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, as well as Oregon’s Ron Wyden, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to hold the Corps’ feet to the fire and require it to do its legally mandated job.
Questions about the greater risk of oil spills due to coal carrier collisions and the increased underwater noise pollution (affecting especially the orcas) must be evaluated in its environmental impact statement.
Decisions about what social and environmental impacts get addressed and whether they can ever be mitigated will not be made in a political vacuum. Terminal advocates have been spending millions on advertising and publicity to trumpet what they claim are the projects’ jobs benefits. And plenty of lobbying is surely going on behind the scenes.
Terminal opponents must make every effort to ensure that the projects’ extensive adverse impacts and their attendant costs are also included in the reviews leading to the final decisions.
Michael Riordan, author of The Hunting of the Quark and coauthor of The Solar Home Book, writes about science, technology and public policy from his home in Eastsound.