County orders preliminary Cherry Point work stopped

Published on Wed, Aug 3, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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One of the dirt roads that was cleared as part of SSA Marine's recent geotechnical work at the Cherry Point site. Photo courtesy of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services.

BREAKING: Whatcom County Planning and Development services has fined SSA Marine for unpermitted tree-clearing and road-grading work at the Cherry Point site. Read more on the Lighthouse Blog.

Whatcom County planning officials have ordered dirt-road grading and clearing work be stopped at the Cherry Point site after a county council member raised questions about SSA Marine’s permissions to do the work.

Seattle-based SSA Marine, which owns the property, is in the process of studying the site in order to begin the environmental review process for the $600 million bulk-commodity shipping terminal planned for the area. The work involves taking drilled samples of the earth at the site to perform geotechnical analysis, but AMEC Earth & Environmental, the Abbotsford-based firm doing the work, had also reportedly cleared trees for dirt roads without the county’s permission.

County council member Carl Weimer first saw the land disturbances while walking his dogs at the site and reported them to county planning and development services. Weimer wrote on his personal blog in a post dated July 28 that an estimated 2.5 miles of road had been cleared through the trees and wetlands that blanket the area.

On July 20, AMEC planner Cliff Strong sent an email to county officials explaining the clearing of trees for access paths was part of the approved work AMEC had been doing since June 27. County natural resources supervisor Wayne Fitch replied to Strong two days later telling him the extent of AMEC’s work exceeded the permits AMEC received from the county in 2008.

“This work has gone beyond what was previously authorized in 2008 and should be discontinued until future authorizations have been obtained,” Fitch wrote.

SSA Marine issued a statement on Monday, August 1, attempting to clear up confusion that had arisen over the company’s work at the site. SSA Marine vice president Bob Watters said the shipping terminal company and AMEC were under the impression the work being done had the county’s stamp of approval.

“SSA Marine and its engineering contractors understood that we had permission and were in full compliance with county regulations for gathering geotechnical information for the [environmental impact statement],” Watters said.

 On Wednesday, August 3, Watters said mistakes were made in going ahead with the work and will take the necessary steps to fix it. SSA Marine is committed to following any corrective actions the county might impose, Watters added.

“We were on the site on Tuesday, as was Whatcom County, and we will likely be out there again on Friday with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Watters said.  “It’s clear that mistakes were made. SSA Marine’s standards were not met, and this is not acceptable. We are taking the necessary steps to make this right.”

SSA Marine had contended that the work required large machines that needed dirt roads cleared through the forested areas to operate. Watters said the impacts that resulted are temporary and involve less than 0.5 percent of the 1,100-acre site. Watters assured the county that all worked stopped once questions were raised.

“As soon as we became aware there was a question about our compliance, we ordered an immediate stop to all work until we cleared up the matter,” Watters said. “We have confirmed with all our employees and contractors on the Gateway project that SSA Marine has a strict standard of full compliance with all the environmental regulations, and we expect them to meet that standard at all times.”

At full capacity, the Gateway Pacific Terminal is expected to handle 54 million tons of dry-bulk commodities, such as coal and grain, per year. For more information, visit the county planning webpage devoted to the project.