The public comment period for the proposed coal-export terminal north of Bellingham has been tentatively delayed until fall, as the agencies heading up the environmental review process try to find the times and places to hold the public meetings.

A rough timeline for the project’s environmental review process had shown earlier that the scoping period, which determines where and how the project will impact the environment, would begin this summer.

The three co-lead agencies for the environmental review — Ecology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County — are currently working with a company contracted to help perform the review to determine where and when to hold public meetings, state Department of Ecology spokeswoman Katie Skipper said.

She said additional research is needed to find out where those meetings would be most needed and useful.

“We need to research and develop criteria for making those selections,” Skipper said. “It’s not just going to be a random determination of locations.”

Skipper said that when the public comment period is open, it will be broadly advertised.

She also said the public comment period has been extended to 120 days, much longer than the normal 21 days for review under the State Environmental Protection Act, due to the size and potential impacts of the project.

At full build-out, the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would export 54 million tons of bulk commodities, mostly coal, per year. The project would lead to increased rail traffic from Everett north to the terminal, with up to 18 additional train trips per day running through cities with many at-grade crossings, such as Mount Vernon and Burlington.

The Cherry Point terminal is one of several proposed coal-export terminals which, if they are all approved and built on time, could bring 75 million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to the Pacific Northwest by 2017, according to a study recently released by the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

Plans for traffic mitigation at train crossings have not been discussed by project applicant SSA Marine or Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which would be largely responsible for transporting the coal, according to the study.

In its application to Whatcom County, SSA Marine defined the project area to be the 1,200-acre parcel of heavy industrial-zoned land at Cherry Point’s deepwater port. The scoping period provides the opportunity for concerned agencies, officials and citizens to make public comments on how the project may or may not have wider-ranging impacts.

Supporters of the project note that thousands of short-term and hundreds of long-term jobs would be created by its construction, while opponents point to potential health and environmental risks from coal dust and emissions from trains here and coal-burning power plants in China as reasons to stop the facility’s construction.

While comments can currently be sent to the co-leads, they will not be present on public record, and will need to be re-submitted when the comment period opens, Skipper said.

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