science environment

Puget Sound Coal Port Backers Pause Environmental Review

By Ashley Ahearn (KUOW/EarthFix)
April 1, 2016 9:46 p.m.
A coal mine operation in Wyoming.

A coal mine operation in Wyoming.

Katie Campbell, KCTS9/EarthFix

The environmental review for what could be the largest coal export terminal in the country appears to have been put on hold.


SSA Marine is the company behind the proposed rail-to-ship coal terminal planned for the Puget Sound shoreline near Bellingham, Washington. It announced Friday that opposition from the Lummi Tribe was the main reason for its decision.

The tribe’s fishing grounds surround the project site, and the Lummi had asked the federal government to deny the permits for the coal terminal because it would violate their treaty fishing rights.

An executive with the company said its temporary halt in working on the review does not signal its abandonment of the project — just a delay while it waits for the Lummi's request to be rejected.

“Based on the facts generated through the iterative process we believe the Corps should agree that there is less than a de minimis impact on the Lummi Tribe’s fishing rights and that the EIS process should be completed,” Bob Watters, SSA Marine’s senior vice president said in a statement.

The port would be built on the north shore of Puget Sound outside Bellingham, Washington. It would accommodate almost 60 million tons a year of coal and other commodities.


READ: Coal Scorecard -- Your Guide to Coal in the Northwest

The Army Corps of Engineers is the federal agency that is overseeing the permitting process. It has not made a decision about the Lummi's treaty fishing rights yet. That's expected later this month. Spokesperson Patricia Graesser said that the Corps has not received official notice from SSA Marine to halt the environmental review, despite what the company said publicly about its plans.

"Once we get something in writing then we'll respond appropriately but we haven't gotten anything in writing yet," she said.

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University of Washington law professor Sanne Knudsen said it's unusual for a company behind a big project like this to "press pause" during the review process when they're eager to break ground.

"It may be a sign that they're less optimistic than they say about the outcome of the Lummi treaty determination," she said.

The Gateway Pacific Terminal could move close to 50 million tons of coal from the mines of Montana and Wyoming, onto ships bound for Asia.

The project was one of six to surface in the Pacific Northwest earlier this decade as North American coal mines sought a way to reach Pacific Rim customers. The push came as the U.S. appetite dwindled for their fossil fuel and the greenhouse gases it produces when burned. But as opposition, environmental regulations, economic woes and bankruptcies have piled up, four of those rail-to-ship coal-transport proposals have been dropped.

In addition to the Gateway Pacific project, a proposed coal export terminal remains in play at the Port of Longview on the Washington side of the Columbia River.

 Watch a tribal leader from the Lummi Nation explain his people's opposition to the Gateway Pacific coal terminal: