Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Coal Terminal Update: Whose Process Is This?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
by Jean Melious (photo by Paul Anderson)

As you've probably heard by now, there was a spillover crowd at Bellingham High School tonight for the Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal "pre-scoping" forum, put on by some very nervous lead agencies.

The police presence was quite noticeable, and the evening kicked off with stern warnings of expulsion for bad behavior. As it turns out, I was probably the worst-behaved person there, because I was bored to tears during the first hour and kept texting friends in order to keep awake. I'm glad that the police didn't cite me for rudeness.

Everybody else listened politely and quietly. I hope that they learned something. I use similar slides when I teach Environmental Impact Assessment, and I'm not convinced that they do any good at all. But more is at stake here, and adult learners predominated, so here's hoping that the information made sense.

The second hour allowed members of the audience to ask questions of a panel of agency personnel, including representatives of the County, the Department of Ecology, the Attorney General's office, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Randel Perry, representing the Army Corps, might need some training in bureaucratic double-speak, because he actually answered the questions that people asked him. The crowd didn't always like the answers, but Randel was knowledgeable and straightforward. Hooah to the Corps. Whatcom County's Tyler Schroeder got most of the questions and did his best to answer. When he didn't know something, he didn't pretend.

Some of the others were a little less accustomed to dealing with the public. That's a symptom, perhaps, of sitting around a table behind closed doors with the MAP team for the past two years. You come out into the daylight, blinking, and there's a room full of 800 just plain folks.

The questions were excellent. I wish that I could have answered one of them. My answer would have been different.

Somebody asked if the public comment period could be longer than 60 days, for both the scoping period and for review of the draft Environmental Impact Statement. The answer, boiled down to its essentials, was "no." (The actual answer didn't actually include the word "no" and took about 500 more words, but that was the gist of things.)

But guess what? The real answer is "yes."

The agencies can (and often do, at least under NEPA) provide more public review time. For a project of this magnitude, a 60-day scoping period is pretty minimal, and allowing only 60 days to review a draft Environmental Impact Statement that is projected to take two years to prepare would be crazy.

So why are the agencies saying that they won't provide more time?

Possibly because the applicant has to agree to a scoping period of longer than 30 days under SEPA (see WAC 197-11-410(4)), and perhaps the applicant doesn't want to agree to more than 60 days.

Applicants always want the shortest possible review periods. That way, people have less time to review. And maybe to criticize, or find problems, or raise difficult issues, or think of alternatives.

But let's think about this.
  • The applicant and the agencies have been meeting for two years. Two years to understand and process information relating to the project and its necessary permits.
  • The applicant submitted an incomplete application to Whatcom County and got extensions.
Isn't it a little bit lopsided for the agencies to meet in private for two years with the applicant, to give the applicant all the extensions that it wants, and then to turn to the public that wants more than 60 days to comment on the scope of this enormous project and say:

"MORE? You want MORE?"

The lead agencies could, quite reasonably, tell the applicant that more time is needed for public and agency review in order to prepare an adequate environmental impact statement. The applicant could put its foot down and say "no," of course, but it would do so on the understanding that the lead agencies did not believe that enough time was provided to prepare an adequate document. And the applicant would understand that, if the agencies don't believe that the document is adequate, they are under no obligation to approve the project.

As a result, the wise applicant will usually agree to reasonable extensions of time.

So why don't the agencies request a little more time for the public to have a say?

Don't forget, the reason that we have a MAP team is to expedite the process. For the applicant.

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