Coal Export Company Accused of Deceiving the Public

One of the companies involved in a controversial proposal to build a coal export terminal in northern Washington has been accused of violating local environmental laws.  The terminal developer, SSA Marine, was discovered clearing roads through the wetland on Cherry Point, the site of the proposed coal terminal.  According to Whatcom County Councilmember Carl Weimer, this activity is probably against county rules.

Weimer was the one who first discovered the roads, which he estimates have displaced about five acres of wetland already.  Weimer was walking his dog at Cherry Point when he saw that someone had been clearing land at the site of the proposed coal export terminal.

“I thought that was odd,” wrote Weimer on his blog, “since the Council had just recently been told by our planning staff that to date SSA had not even submitted a complete application for their project, let alone been given permits to start clearing anything.”

Weimer asked County Planning and Development Services to look into the matter.  According to the Bellingham Herald, county natural resources supervisor Wayne Fitch investigated, and discovered a consulting firm working for SSA Marine was indeed behind the development.  The company was ordered to halt work immediately and to apply for permits if it wants to go on clearing wetlands.

Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen agrees SSA Marine was violating local laws, and says the company should be held accountable.  However company representatives say the road building was part of monitoring work they received a permit to conduct back in 2008.  In his blog post, Weimer had noted this earlier permit, saying he was informed about it when he asked Planning and Development Service to look into the road-building.

According to Weimer, Whatcom Planning and Development Services “said that SSA had asked for and was given written permission in 2008 to drill some monitoring wells, but that permission did not include permission to clear vegetation or do anything near this level of ground disturbance.” 

The discovery that SSA Marine was clearing wetlands without permission isn’t the first time communities in the Pacific Northwest have had a coal export company deceive them.  Earlier this year, it turned out the developer of a proposed coal export terminal in Longview, Washington had lied to county officials about the amount of coal the company wants to send through the Port of Longview.

The developer of the Longview proposal, Millennium Bulk Logistics, had said in a permit application that it wanted to export five million tons of coal each year.  However internal documents obtained by environmental groups showed Millennium was really planning to export up to 25 million tons of coal every year, making for a much bigger project with a larger environmental impact than county officials were informed of.

After the true scale of its plans became public, Millennium withdrew its permit application.  It is now working on a new application for a 25 million ton facility—a development that has moved back the timeline for the project.  It remains to be seen whether news of SSA Marine’s illegal clearing will similarly affect the Cherry Point export proposal.

What’s certain is that should this or another coal export facility be built in the Pacific Northwest, the impact on the environment would be vastly larger than the five acres of wetland SSA Marine has already cleared.  The United States has the largest reserves of coal in the world, and proposed coal export terminals would link the US coal supply to quickly-growing demand in developing nations. 

With abundant, cheap coal readily available, countries like China and India would be tempted to run their growing economies on the dirty fossil fuel rather than invest in clean energy.  The result would be catastrophic for the global climate, and likely make the worst effects of global warming almost impossible to avoid.  A new generation of coal plants in eastern Asia would also emit pollutants like mercury that would blow across the Pacific Ocean, affecting air and water quality in the western United States.

What happens at Whatcom County’s Cherry Point thus has implications for the global fight against climate change, and will influence the direction of world energy development.  However for county residents, the local environmental impacts are just as important.  And SSA Marine’s recent actions have cast doubt on the company’s ability to win the trust of the community.

“I’m not seeing SSA Marine acting in good faith here,” wrote an anonymous commenter on Councilmember Weimer’s blog about the road-building.  “If this is representative of how they are going to treat Whatcom County, then I now officially have trust issues with them.”

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