SSA Marine submits Cherry Point terminal permits

Published on Thu, Jun 23, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Seattle-based shipping terminal company SSA Marine has formally submitted the necessary Whatcom County permits for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, but questions have arisen as to the validity of the company’s documents.

On June 6, SSA Marine, operating as its subsidiary Pacific International Terminals, submitted major project and shoreline substantial development permits to Whatcom County’s planning and development services. Skip Sahlin, SSA Marine vice president for project management, wrote in a letter attached to the documents that the applications will serve as revisions to SSA Marine’s existing permits.

“As you know, we already have a valid Major Development Permit and Substantial Development Permit that would allow us to construct Stage 1 of the proposal,” Sahlin wrote. “The applications submitted herein will cover the difference in scope between that approved project and our full buildout plan.”

The permits detail the proposed 350-acre Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would annually handle up to 54 million tons of dry bulk commodities, such as coal, grain and calcium coke, a byproduct of oil refining. If all permits are approved, SSA Marine expects to break ground on phase one of the $665 million project in 2013 and complete it by 2015.

The Gateway Pacific Terminal involves two permits from Whatcom County: a major project development permit, which is required for projects of a certain size, and a shoreline substantial development permit, which is required for major projects that come within 200 feet of the shoreline.

The county hearings examiner approves the shoreline permit but only provides a recommendation to county council on the major development permit, which council must approve.

SSA Marine first applied for the two permits in question in 1992, and Whatcom County Council approved them in 1997.
They described a 180-acre facility that was proposed to handle 8.2 million tons of dry cargo per year. Coal was not listed as a potential commodity in the 1992 application.

The 1992 permits were appealed, and SSA Marine never started construction of the facility.

Fourteen years later, SSA Marine is seeking permit revisions to cover the differences between the two proposed projects ­– differences that include an additional rail loading and unloading portion of the facility that adds 170 acres and 45.8 million tons of annual capacity.

On June 17, attorneys Kristen Boyles and Jan Hasselman from the Seattle office of environmental law firm Earthjustice sent a letter to Whatcom County’s planning services on behalf of environmental groups Climate Solutions, Sierra Club and Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. The Earthjustice letter details potential problems with SSA Marine’s submitted permit revisions and says Whatcom County will decide whether or not to accept the revisions on or before June 24.

“[SSA Marine] misreads the 1997 permit as well as the governing statutes and regulations, and its approach to the Shoreline Permit in this important matter is neither lawful nor sensible,” Boyles and Hasselman wrote. “Because [SSA Marine] has inappropriately requested a permit revision rather than a new permit, we believe the permit application is incomplete.”

Specifically, the letter cites Washington state law detailing when a governmental agency can legally approve permit revisions. Revisions cannot be approved when, among other criteria, the change includes a project footprint size increase of 10 percent or more and if the revision has the potential to cause adverse environmental impacts.

Boyle and Hasselman also raise concern about the lack of public input in the permit revision process, something the approval of a completely new permit would require. They said the public is a key player in the project and should be given the proper venues to offer comment.

“We are concerned that [SSA Marine] may be seeking to avoid public consideration of the dock and other facilities by using a revision,” the attorneys wrote. “In light of the significant changes to the project, full public process and complete consideration of the environmental impacts of the project is warranted.”

Before any permits can be approved, SSA Marine must complete an environmental impact statement (EIS), which will study how the proposed terminal will affect its surroundings. Public hearings to determine what impacts the EIS will include, called the scope, are tentatively scheduled for late July or early August.

For more information on the Gateway Pacific Terminal from the county planning department, click here.