County fines SSA Marine for Cherry Point work

Published on Wed, Aug 10, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Seattle-based shipping terminal company SSA Marine has been fined for clearing trees and grading dirt roads through environmentally sensitive areas at the Cherry Point site.

The work was done by the company’s subcontractor AMEC Earth & Environmental to collect data for the eventual environmental review process for the proposed $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal. At full capacity, the terminal is slated to handle 54 million tons of dry bulk commodities, such as coal and grain, annually for transport to China and other Asian markets.

Whatcom County Planning and Development Services (PDS) officials announced August 3 the county will levy $2,000 in fines against SSA Marine for violating county critical area and tree-clearing regulations. SSA Marine will also be responsible for repairing the damage to the site and reimbursing the county for the roughly $2,400 paid to PDS staff while preparing the violation paperwork.

Officials from the Washington State Department of Ecology have announced that the site work was done without SSA Marine obtaining the necessary state stormwater permits and that engaging in construction without the permit is in violation of state and federal clean water laws. These permits are required for construction work spreading over one acre or more, and DOE estimated nine acres of road had been cleared at the Cherry Point site.

DOE spokesman Larry Altose said SSA Marine has until August 15 to submit the necessary permits and other information about the extent of the work to the state. DOE officials are still deciding what actions the department should take against the company.

News of SSA Marine’s preliminary work at the site first broke when Whatcom County council member Carl Weimer posted descriptions of the cleared areas to his personal blog on July 28. Weimer, who found the damage while walking his dogs, estimated 2.5 miles of road had been graded.

On July 20, AMEC planner Cliff Strong sent an email to county natural resources supervisor Wayne Fitch explaining the road-grading had been necessary to move earth drilling equipment onto the site. Fitch said SSA Marine had the correct permits to do most of the drilling, but not to clear dirt roads through the forests and wetlands that blanket the area.

After SSA Marine’s work at the site had been revealed, the company issued a press release in which SSA Marine vice president Bob Watters said the terminal company and AMEC were under the impression the county had given them permission to clear dirt roads. After Watters and county officials visited the site, however, he admitted that SSA Marine was mistaken in doing the work and said the company would do all the county requested of it to fix the damage.

“We were on the site on [August 2], as was Whatcom County, and we will likely be out there again 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.”

Watter said SSA Marine will be taking full responsibility for the mistake and that AMEC will not face any fines or other repercussions from any county, state or federal regulatory agencies. The terminal company is in the process of evaluating its procedures in order to determine how the permitting oversight happened, Watters added.
“It was 100 percent our mistake,” he said.

AMEC crews had been collecting geotechnical data at the site for about three days before the permitting issue was brought to SSA Marine’s attention, after which the company halted the work, Watters said. Now that damage to the area has been identified, SSA Marine’s first priority will be taking the remedial action mandated by the county, he said.

While SSA Marine has admitted its mistake, opponents of the terminal say the company’s actions are just one more reason the terminal should not be built.

Matt Krogh, with Bellingham-based terminal opponent RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said SSA Marine’s actions further damaged the public’s trust of the company and a fit into a pattern of behavior that is seen with other large corporations that deal in coal, which will be one of the terminal’s main commodities.

The amount of money SSA Marine pays in fines will most likely be  less than what they will have gained from getting started on the work needed for the environmental review process, Krogh explained. It’s in SSA Marine’s best interest to move through the environmental review process as quickly as possible before the demand for coal disappears, he said.

“It’s hard to say if they were playing fast and loose or if they knew what they were doing,” Krogh said.

Watters said SSA Marine has not yet determined what the total cost to the company will be once the fines are paid and the damage to the site has been repaired. He said he is not concerned the demand for coal or any of the other commodities the terminal is slated to handle will drastically decrease before the terminal is built.