Army Corps of Engineers decision on the coal terminals | Guest columns

Michael Riordan

By Michael Riordan

Recently coal-terminal advocates won an apparent victory when the Army Corps of Engineers told Congress it would not perform an area-wide review of the proposed projects’ environmental impacts. Instead it would only consider the projects on a case-by-case basis and focus narrowly upon their impacts on U.S. waterways, over which it has regulatory control.

This unilateral decision leaves the door wide open to legal challenges, which are sure to occur. The Corps approach ignores the thousands of scoping comments submitted by Northwest citizens and groups concerned about coal dust, noise, diesel emissions and blocked crossings all along railways bringing the dirty 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 review, the Corps bears a far broader responsibility than that specified by its narrow domain of legal authority, based upon the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act and 1972 Clean Water Act. It cannot shirk this responsibility by claiming it lacks regulatory control beyond our waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency has suggested as much, asking that it also assess the projects’ area-wide and climate impacts.

But the Corps has a history of being the dutiful handmaiden of water-project promoters, an entrenched redoubt of Congressmen and Senators who have controlled the cognizant appropriations subcommittees. They care much more about shipping coal and grain than about the quality of our air and water.

All is not lost, however. Concerned Northwesterners must now turn to the Washington state Department of Ecology, and parallel agencies in other states, to assess impacts on air quality, health and local economies.

Under the State Environmental Policy Act, the scope of Ecology’s review need not dovetail with the national one. Nor should it. And we must insist that our state agencies do thorough reviews that address state concerns much more vigorously than the Corps and its Congressional overseers might prefer.

Crucial reviews of local air-quality impacts, such as due to coal dust and diesel fumes, will be done by 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 for some reason absent from the list. Perhaps our Councilors might take a close look at this oversight and try to rectify it.

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 Department of Natural Resources led by Peter Goldmark. For the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal piers would extend into the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, which aims to enhance the dwindling herring population that spawns there every spring. Lying near the base of the marine 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 when the matter reaches his desk. He will need strong citizen and state government 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 I can imagine it will try to shirk them, too.

Here we need to call upon our 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 insist that it do its legally mandated job. Questions about the increased risk of oil spills due to coal carrier collisions and greater underwater noise pollution (which would affect the orcas especially) must be addressed in its environmental impact statement.

Decisions about what social and environmental impacts get assessed and whether they can be mitigated will not be made in a political vacuum. Terminal advocates have been spending millions on advertising and publicity to trumpet the projects’ imagined jobs benefits. And plenty of lobbying must be 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 assessments 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.