Monday, October 24, 2011

Of Wetlands and Sausages

If you want to sit back and be happy, secure in the belief that “the process” will take care of any little matters that might affect your future – like North America’s largest coal terminal out on Cherry Point – and that we don't need to raise our voices because Whatcom County, the State of Washington, and the federal government are taking care of our interests –
-- 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.
So --
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.


  1. As you say, "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."

    And this is why I, for one, have been unconvinced, notwithstanding obfuscation, by the Linville campaign's assertions their candidate opposes development of a major coal export facility at Cherry Point.

    From the outset, Linville has cautioned us to allow the "process" to work, and criticized Pike for rushing to judgment. This always seemed to me a subterfuge for some other agenda.

    That agenda became more obvious when it came out that Linville, while chair of Ways & Means just last year, was using her position on behalf of campaign contributors (SSA, BNSF et al) to influence "the process" with state agencies.

    Recently disclosed e-mails from Ecology director, Ted Sturdevant, refer to Linville's support of a more cordial reception for SSA's plans.

    Certainly, if the chair of Ways and Means thinks, "the key parties should get around the table to get clear on what the obstacles are and what the path forward is ..." because they suspect, "... the agencies are impediments" the path forward is unlikely to present any overwhelming obstacles.

    But now Linville tells voters she has never supported the export of coal at Cherry Point.

    No, just supported a clearer path.

    Of course this is just politics as usual. Contributors who "pay to play" on one hand; on the other, politicians who play along, not so much for the money, but to keep the money from recruiting opponents to steal their seat on the gravy train.

    One things clear. The outcome of all this "process" stuff they're pushing may not be "tasty or nutritious" but someone's clearly getting fat!

  2. I am pleased to see SSA's assertion that "Clearing of paths was accomplished by pushing over vegetation in a 17-foot-wide corridor between marked borehole locations." Can this be proven?

    When I looked at the pictures of the cleared tracks, I did not see the number of trees I would have expected to see "pushed over" lying along the margins.

    Where are the trees that were pushed over? Is there any evidence of chain sawn stumps? Did the trees have help getting "pushed over"? Most importantly, did some of those trees get up and go somewhere else?

    If timber was collected and moved off site, it was presumably merchantable and marketed. In that case, there is no excuse for not imposing the moratorium. That's the best silver bullet the community has.