-- then please, don’t read the e-mails about the Gateway Pacific coal terminal that Whatcom County posts on the Planning and Development Services web site.
There’s an old saying that “laws are like sausages: if you like them, you should never watch them being made.” “The process” is a bit like that. If you want to like it, don’t watch it being made. And certainly don’t look at the ingredients. Snouts, eyeballs, entrails – if you're going to have to eat them, maybe it's better not to know that they're there.
I made the mistake of running my eye over the latest batch of posted e-mails last night, and I sorta wish I hadn’t. The link to the e-mails is here, and the page numbers indicated below refer to the document that you'll reach through the link.
There was SSA’s “Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan” (starting on p. 23), which SSA’s consultant prepared in order to “prevent” pollution after SSA plowed roads through the site, cut down timber, and filled wetlands. Whatcom County Engineering approved the plan after a “grand total” of two hours of review (p. 108).
Here’s how SSA described its activities: "Clearing of paths was accomplished by pushing over vegetation in a 17-foot-wide corridor between marked borehole locations." (p. 30)
That vegetation, it’s just a pushover. The gentlest nudge and you’ve got a road! The problem that we have in Whatcom County is not that companies feel that they can operate here without following the law. Our problem is wimpy trees.
SSA’s plan also says that “Once agency approvals are received the geotechnical investigation will resume.” (p. 29) Only this time, I hear, SSA has posted No Trespassing signs. No pesky dog enforcers allowed!
Speaking of “not following the law,” there was also a letter from the Army Corps of Engineers (starts on page 100), saying that SSA’s actions not only pushed a bunch of vegetation around but were “in violation of federal law.” Despite that detail, the Corps is chill (“I have decided not to pursue prosecution at this time”) as long as SSA gets an “after the fact” permit. An option that ought to be available to all of us in all walks of life.
The correspondence that really caught my eye, though, was an e-mail from the state Office of Regulatory Assistance, offering to help Whatcom County learn how to comply with SSA’s wish to “mitigate” wetland impacts through an in-lieu fee. (p. 196.)
Hmm, I thought, that’s interesting. If it can just pay an “in-lieu fee,” SSA wouldn’t actually be required to create, enhance, or restore wetland functions in the affected area.
Instead, SSA could just write a check. And then wetlands would be created/enhanced/restored. Somewhere. At some point in time. But not necessarily in the same watershed, and not necessarily at the same time that SSA is destroying 142 acres of wetlands adjacent to an aquatic reserve.
Why would the state be expediting this “mitigation,” which does not seem like the best choice for our community? I looked at the Department of Ecology’s website to see what it had to say about in-lieu fees. And what it had to say confirmed that this form of mitigation is not a first choice:
In this approach to mitigation, a permittee pays a fee to a third party in lieu of conducting project-specific mitigation or buying credits from a mitigation bank. ILF mitigation is used mainly to compensate for minor impacts to wetlands when better approaches to compensation are not available, practicable, or when the use of an ILF is in the best interest of the environment. Compensation for larger impacts is usually provided by project-specific mitigation or a mitigation bank.
I’m still shaking my head over that one.
Only in Whatcom County would regulators even think about treating the destruction of 142 acres of wetlands as a “minor impact.”
Or maybe “project-specific mitigation” is just not “practicable” for SSA.
If you’re comfortable with the assurance that the coal terminal will only be approved if it’s “fully mitigated,” bear in mind that one person’s “full mitigation” is another person’s “practicable” mitigation.
The sausage that comes out at the end of the process will only be as palatable as the ingredients that go into it. If we aren't careful, we'll be fed whatever is "practicable" for SSA. Whether or not it's tasty or nutritious.