Pact Gains Added Cherry Point Protection

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch, has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the August/September 1999 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Editor’s Note: August/September 1999 was the first issue reporting votes by the Bellingham City Council and the Whatcom County Council. The first votes by the Port of Bellingham Commission appeared in the October/November 2000 issue. Before the end of 2019, Whatcom Watch will have been reported on 13,000 votes.

by David M. Schmalz

In early August, [1999] a coalition of five citizens’ groups joined two state resource agencies in reaching a settlement with Gateway Pacific Terminals related to efforts to develop a deepwater, bulk cargo shipping and storage facility at Cherry Point. The agreement establishes important conditions aimed at natural resource protection that will be implemented if, and when, the Gateway proposal moves forward with development.

The Gateway proposal would add approximately 140 ocean-going ship and barge trips per year to an eight mile reach of shoreline which currently receives 850 annual trips to the ARCO and Tosco refinery piers and the Intalco Aluminum pier. These ships enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca and travel through the waters of the San Juan Islands to reach Cherry Point.

In 1997, Gateway received shoreline development permits from Whatcom County to construct and operate their proposed facility. The Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a coalition of five environmental groups, including the North Cascades Audubon Society, Washington Environmental Council, People For Puget Sound and the Whatcom County Chapter of the League of Women Voters, appealed the permits to the state Shoreline Hearings Board. The basis of the appeals was the failure to adequately address and mitigate for likely environmental impacts from the project.

After nearly 18 months of negotiations, the parties signed an agreement dealing with the limited issues that can be raised within the scope of a shoreline permit. The settlement gained important concessions and mitigation related to this single permit and how they will be enforced under shoreline laws — if and when the project receives all other permit approvals and actually goes forward to development.

Critical Habitat
The marine waters of Cherry Point provide critical habitat for all five species of Pacific Salmon, including the Chinook, which was recently listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The area is also the most important site in the inland waters for the commercial production of Dungeness crab. Cherry Point also provides critical habitat for seabirds, waterfowl and marine fish and mammals.

The biological centerpiece of the Cherry Point marine ecology are the herring stocks. Herring are the cornerstone of the marine food chain and are important to the lives of salmon, seabirds, waterfowl, marine fish and marine mammals during their entire life history. Historically, Cherry Point area herring stocks have comprised the largest populations in the state and have produced up to 50 percent of adult herring for the entire state on an annual basis.

Herring stocks at Cherry Point have recently undergone a precipitous decline for reasons that are not fully understood. According to Washington Fish and Wildlife data, the total spawning biomass of the Cherry Point stock declined from over 12,000 tons in the late 1970s to less than 2,000 tons last year. At the same time, the geographical area of herring spawning has contracted dramatically.

During negotiations, several key areas of concern were identified by environmental groups and state agencies. Among these were impacts to habitat in the footprint of the pier from shading and ship operations; impacts to herring, particularly during spawning season; ballast water exchange; water quality deterioration from construction and operation of the facility; vessel traffic impacts; public access issues; and questions surrounding how many additional piers will be allowed at Cherry Point. Representatives from all parties worked hard to address these issues and Gateway is to be commended for taking a much more proactive and aggressive approach to protection of marine resources than past development proposals.

Key Conditions of the Settlement
Following is a brief summary of key conditions, environmental safeguards and mitigation that was secured in the shoreline permit settlement:

1. The agreement preserves the right of environmental appellants to participate in the review processes before other agencies. Included in this will be analysis and comment on ongoing review of herring status and possible listing under the Endangered Species Act. In addition, the settlement does not limit the authority of state or federal agencies to require further conditions, and/or require studies in addition to those provided for in the agreement.

2. Macroalgae Mitigation Plan: Addresses shading from the pier and lost habitat. Includes monitoring and mitigation contingencies for such effects as prop wash impacts. Plan and monitoring is funded by Gateway.

3. Herring Monitoring Program: Requires a comprehensive study and analysis to evaluate the effects of Gateway operations on herring behavior. Looks at behavior of herring in much more detail than ever before including schooling areas, migration corridors and spawning behavior. Establishes thresholds of impacts and protocol for contingencies in the event of impacts from facility operations including berthing, hours of berthing, vessel presence, vessel noise and lighting. Establishes levels of mitigation to be implemented if necessary. Includes use of hydroacoustics during herring spawning season to monitor herring and restrict facility operations and activities during key sensitive periods. The program is state agency monitored and Gateway funded.

4. Ballast Water Protocol and Monitoring System: Requires open ocean ballast exchange which greatly reduces the incidence of introduction of non-native organisms to local waters. Mandatory testing for all ships and barges utilizing facility. Gateway funded.

5. Sediment, Tissue and Water Quality Monitoring: Requires annual sampling of sediments, marine water and shellfish or other indicator tissue for assessment of water quality. Mitigation contingencies implemented if necessary. State agency monitored, Gateway funded.

6. Vessel Traffic Analysis: Requires a comprehensive analysis of impact Gateway will have in addition to other existing marine traffic. Issues include safety impacts of increased traffic, vessel traffic management, oil spill risk, hazards at the facility and bunkering (fueling) operations. Establishes a Vessel Traffic Safety Committee to recommend revised vessel operations protocols which will be regionally coordinated and integrated.

7. Public Access: Gateway gifted to Whatcom County areas of both beachfront and uplands, including a sensitive saltwater marsh, for the purposes of a public park. Gateway also conveyed fee title to one area of tidelands, and an easement to an additional area of tidelands. Agreement also acknowledges the state’s rights to public access under the public trust doctrine.

8. Single Additional Pier: Agreement contains language addressing coordinated effort among jurisdictions to amend the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan and Master Shoreline Program to restrict pier development at Cherry Point to, at most, one additional deep water structure.

9. Wetlands and Habitat Mitigation Plan: Satisfactorily mitigates impacts to upland wetlands and habitat areas insofar as possible considering changes to the environment from site alteration.

In summary, Gateway has agreed to additional studies, to continually monitor the effects of the project, to provide additional mitigation if necessary, and, if something is wrong, to change the operation to address problems that may arise. The ballast water exchange program and vessel traffic safety analysis, in particular, are huge gains toward overall protection of marine resources in Washington state waters. Regionally coordinated vessel traffic safety measures have been a long-time goal for advocates of safer shipping practices throughout Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and northern inland waters.

David M. Schmalz was president of the North Cascades Audubon Society when this article was written.