Greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, ocean acidification and human health along rail lines will all be studied before permits can be issued for a proposed bulk commodities terminal near Bellingham, the state Department of Ecology said Wednesday.

Locals are praising the state’s decision to consider the rail traffic and terminal’s effect on communities, but an executive for SSA Marine, the company advancing the coal terminal project, says Ecology is overreaching its authority. However, SSA Marine Senior Vice President Bob Watters said the company will not challenge the plan.

The Environmental Impact Statement will be extensive, because the state received more than 125,000 comments regarding its scope during a 121-day comment period last fall and winter.

Ecology Regional Administrator Josh Baldi said state law discourages increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Baldi said the state knows the coal will be burned to produce thermal power, which is likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions, and also increase ocean acidification.

“We know it will create more greenhouse gas emissions than all sources in Washington combined,” Baldi said. “The environmental review we are doing is more about the climate change effects of this proposal. There is a national discussion about this.”

Watters said the sheer breadth of the studies, which will guide the draft Environmental Impact Statement, are unprecedented for any marine terminal or industrial project in the state — and perhaps the nation. He said he is concerned about what could be a new precedent for environmental review for industrial and rail projects in the nation.

“The one benefit about this is we are finally getting the EIS process moving,” Watters said.

Watters said he is confident that science will refute some of the claims advanced by opponents of the project. He questioned a claim that the Gateway Pacific Terminal will increase global greenhouse gas emissions.

“The reality is there will be no net increase to greenhouse gasses from this coal,” Watters said. “If it’s not coal from the Powder River Basin, it will be coal from Australia or Indonesia. Our terminal will send less than 1 percent of the coal being burned in Asia.”

Baldi said the draft EIS will disclose how much the project will impact greenhouse gas emissions, even as the coal is burned in Asian markets.

“If greenhouse gases cannot be mitigated, there is authority to deny (a permit),” Baldi said. “I would offer that would be a very high standard that would need to be met.”

Baldi said the studies are likely to take two years, after which a draft EIS will be sent out for public comment.

The terminal that SSA Marine proposes could export 54 million metric tons of bulk commodities, including up to 48 million metric tons of coal.

The coal comes from a vast sub-surface coal field spanning areas in eastern Montana and Wyoming called the Powder River Basin. Because the coal is so close to the surface, it’s inexpensive to mine, load into a rail car and send on its way. The coal trains, 125 to 150 cars long, could take many paths, and one of them is through Washington, east to Seattle and north to Bellingham.

This traffic would generate up to 18 train trips per day along rail lines leading to proposed terminals on the Pacific Coast, including Longview and Grays Harbor.

Cities from Spokane to Marysville to Mount Vernon and Burlington have all said that such train traffic will drastically impact local emergency response. Communities throughout the state, including Mount Vernon and Burlington, sent written comments to Ecology asking that such effects be considered.

“I think it’s a fair review to have on the project, given the impacts that will be felt by surrounding communities, not only in Western Washington, but along the Columbia corridor also. It’s a far-reaching project,” said Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton.

Train tracks bisect the city of about 8,400 people, and only one side has a fire station, Sexton said.

The state has not decided which cities or how many it will evaluate for rail impacts, Baldi said. The state will select representative examples of rural, urban and suburban cities, he said. Cities cannot volunteer to be case studies.

Sexton said area mayors have long held conversations about how the terminal would impact their cities. He said Burlington is a great example of what many cities across the state will face as trains move slowly or stop in the middle of town.

“We have four at-grade crossings and one coal train can block all four at the same time,” Sexton said. “I know Marysville has a tough situation because they have 17 at-grade crossings.”

Of considerable local concern is how emergency responders could navigate roads as trains cross through town. Mount Vernon and Burlington have discussed ways to share emergency responses.

While those discussions began before concerns about the rail traffic arose, Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau said it’s important to have those agreements in place.

“I was really happy that they (Ecology) took into consideration some of our concerns that we had submitted in our scoping letter,” Boudreau said Wednesday.

Also leading the process are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County. The Corps will evaluate the on-site impacts, and Whatcom County will examine the rail transportation impacts near the project site, assess human health impacts inside Whatcom County and evaluate greenhouse gas emissions from terminal operations, and rail and vessel traffic.

- Reporter Kate Martin: 360-416-2145, kmartin@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kate_SVH, facebook.com/KateReports.

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