POTENTIAL ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS
OF THE GATEWAY PACIFIC TERMINAL PROJECT
Pacific International Terminals (PIT), a subsidiary of Stevedoring Services of America (SSA Marine) proposed the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) located in Northwest Washington in 1990, around the same time that Japan announced its projected demand of 100-120 million tons of coal per year (Wechsler, 2012). Over the years this proposal advanced to the environmental review process which started in February 2012, and has now progressed to the Scoping process, begun September 24, 2012. Scoping will aid in determining which factors should be analyzed and what geographic areas are necessary to consider before drafting the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) (Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point Proposal, 2012). As this proposal has evolved, the Asian market has expanded. In 2011 India, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan forecasted their annual coal import to be a total of 140 million tons per year. Peabody Energy predicts that in the year 2014 this demand will increase by 80% to approximately 250 million tons annually (Anderson, 2011).
Cherry Point Location
A deep-water marine terminal is proposed for construction in Cherry Point, WA in Whatcom County, and is intended to handle both importing and exporting of up to 54 million dry metric tons of goods, of which 48 million tons would be coal—making this the largest coal port in North America. In total, the terminal facility would berth three ships along the 2,980 foot long wharf, while the cargo is transported along a constructed 1,250 foot trestle bridging the ships to the shore. The construction would also include the 80 to 105 acre designated stockyard that will be used to store coal and associated machinery (Trimingham, 2012). Even though the two years of construction for this project could potentially provide an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 jobs for workers, the port operator SSA Marine forecasts that only 800 to 1,250 of those jobs will remain permanent (Anderson, 2011).
There are great repercussions of this project: apart from an economic stand-point, major detrimental and irreversible marine biological diversity conservation issues are at stake! The already sensitive population of the Cherry Point Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi) stock has the potential to experience a greater decline, even though it was once the largest stock in Washington State (Landis, 2010)! Construction of the GPT also increases the risk of eelgrass (Zostera marina) population degradation, a crucial coastal ecosystem element that improves water quality, counteracts erosion processes and provides an environment for marine organisms (Dowty, 2010).
Although there are many factors that have the potential to affect both Clupea pallasi and Zostera marina, I will focus upon the dramatic effect of coal dust on the marine environment. According to the 1999 assessment by Ryan Johnson and R.M Bustin, which focused on marine sediments adjacent to the Roberts Bank coal terminal located in Delta, British Columbia, Canada, this study revealed that the concentration of coal particles increased immensely from a prior study done in 1977. Specifically, concentrations of non-hydrolysable solids (NHS) doubled from
a mean concentration of 1.80% in the year 1977 to 3.60% in 1999. Even though the total dispersal distance area of coal did not increase throughout this twenty-two year period, the abundance of coal in the surface sediment within the designated dispersal area did increase. Since 1977, the main deposition of coal, where concentrations were calculated reaching 10.5% and 11.9% NHS, occurred in the coal-loading terminal areas (Johnson, 2005). These high coal dust concentrations have the potential to penetrate into the natural marine sediment, which plays a vital role in creating self-sustaining aquatic habitats. Due to the potential sediment deposition of coal particles near the bottom of these marine ecosystems, many marine organisms are at risk of being affected; herring spawning in these abnormally high coal concentration conditions, the state of the micro-invertebrate organisms herring consume, the sediment in which eelgrass beds are growing, and the increased consumption of oxygen within these coastal waters during the increased degradation and breakdown of organic matter of the coal (Johnson, 2005).
BNSF estimates that between 500 pounds to a ton of coal dust is lost by each uncovered car en route (Trimingham, 2012). Therefore, this abundance of airborne chemical dust has great potential to interact with the coastal marine waters of Cherry Point on a daily basis. For this reason, a comprehensive study and analysis needs to be complete to evaluate the impact coal dust will have upon the Cherry Point herring stock as well as the eelgrass beds along the Cherry Point coast. This should include ways in which this project could be mitigated to account for this potential major environmental issue to be completely avoided or at least lessened. This includes advanced sealant technologies that cover each car carrying the millions of tons of coal extending from the mines of Wyoming and Montana through Idaho to Spokane, the Columbia River Gorge, along the Puget Sound coast, and finally reaching its transportation destination at the Cherry Point Terminal in Bellingham, Washington.
Impact on herring stocks
Cherry Point herring spawning stocks have historically provided over a third of the total herring in the Puget Sound region, at its peak reaching a spawning biomass of 15,000 tons in the year 1970 (Brandt, 2012). However, the Washington Department of Natural Resources has reported that the spawning biomass of the herring population around Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve has decreased immensely since the year 1970, and has been unable to fully recover like many other populations in the Puget Sound. This illustrates biological diversity loss, because this one specie provides stability within the marine ecosystem by providing a major food source for diverse fish species, mammals, and certain aquatic birds: Pacific Cod, the endangered Chinook salmon, orcas, seals, common murres and many more local species (Trimingham, 2012). On a greater scale, the human population relies upon the main ecosystem functions that this herring specie provides as a basic part of the food chain in order to in turn provide food, such as salmon, for the human population. In-depth studies have been done upon multiple herring stocks within Puget Sound, such as Squaxin Pass, Discovery Bay, Port Gamble, along with the Cherry Point Pacific herring stock which, according to forecast modeling of these stocks, with the given current conditions none of the stocks is likely to show any increase in population size (Landis, 2010). It is crucial to the survival of this fish specie that protection measures accommodate the Cherry Point herring stock, since coal dust is going to be an outside source of pollution entering into the Cherry Point marine environment and has the potential to be a negative human factor aiding in the population decline of herring within this Bellingham area.
Impact on sea grasses
According to marine scientist, Dr. Sylvia Yang of Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center, who studies the resilience of Washington’s seagrass beds by collecting scientific data for coastal management, seagrasses are disappearing world-wide at a rate of 1.5% per year (Yang, 2012). Eelgrasses (Zostera marina) make tall, expansive meadows, protective environments, prevent erosion, and produce, export and accumulate organic material. These environmental functions are important for many of the marine organisms that rely upon these eelgrass beds as a critical nursery habitat: Dungeness crab, salmon and even herring. Since eelgrass is located near-shore because it requires a lot of sunlight and needs to be submerged in salt water, it inevitably is affected by human activities. The five to nine coal trains reaching the terminal every day will be unleashing uncontrolled coal dust along the way and interacting with this shallow marine environment (Frequently Asked Questions about Gateway Pacific Terminal, 2011).
Although this could be considered habitat loss, since this marine plant specie provides habitat for numerous organisms, it is also biological diversity loss because this specific eelgrass is undergoing not only world-wide depletion, but is disappearing locally along the Washington Coast including within Bellingham, and throughout the Cherry Point marine ecosystem. This near-shore eelgrass habitat provides a lower salinity environment for numerous marine organisms including the ones stated above, as well being a significant addition to the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, a major bird habitat (Trimingham, 2012). This plant specie is a major contributor to nutrient trapping and cycling—playing a role in water quality, as well as contributing to detrital food chains, which in turn has an effect upon larger food chain scales, which the human population relies upon. For example, the eelgrass ecological functions provide marine organisms a food source as well as seafood for people, along with clean and stable water quality. As for marine organisms, this major biodiversity loss of eelgrass can have a major effect due to the forty times more estimated benthic invertebrates, fish and macro-crustaceans that associate themselves with seagrass rather than adjacent clear sand communities (Changes in Seagrass Coverage, 1998).
Puget Sound Partnership along with Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have created ecosystem recovery targets which, while not regulatory, are designed in order to guide the work of all people and organizations that live within the Puget Sound region. The set recovery target for eelgrass is “eelgrass extent in 2020 is 120 percent of area measured in the 2000-2008 baseline period” (Trimingham, 2012). The coal to be transported to Cherry Point would result in the interaction between coal dust and the marine environment, potentially preventing this specific target measure of increasing the eelgrass populations in Puget Sound from succeeding, especially in this North Puget Sound region. Should similar environmental target regulations be created specifically for the eelgrass beds in this precise Bellingham location in order to set a public regulatory standard of protection from the GPT project for this specie? In Washington State there is a seagrass policy of “No Net Loss” which is the idea of replanting the same amount of eelgrass that a human-constructed project has the potential of killing off. However, even if the GPT project were to follow this policy and replant a certain amount of seagrass beds, would these be successful in nature in terms of the ability to be self-sustaining in the coastal marine environment and remaining self-sustaining (Yang, 2012)? The success rate of this policy should be studied more in depth for this terminal project so that there truly is No Net Loss of this valuable specie.
Potential solutions for mitigation
For these reasons, it is necessary to consider solutions by which this project can be mitigated to prevent these high concentrations of coal dust entering the extremely valuable and sensitive coastal marine ecosystems of Cherry Point. With uncovered coal trains, the coal dust is difficult to control. Not only are the train cars transporting the coal product most likely going to be exposed, but the proposed GPT terminal plans to store coal in large open heaps on approximately 80-105 acres located near the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. With the high winds, and wind gusts of around 60-70 knots during the Bellingham winter season, it is likely that these heaps of coal will be agitated (Trimingham, 2012) and will enter into the marine coastal waters. BNSF has performed studies in the Powder River Basin of coal dust and ways in which it is possible to reduce the coal dust release from loaded cars. These studies resulted in discovering that with proper application of specific topper agents; Nalco Dustbind Plus, Midwest Soil-Sediment, or AKJ CTS-100, as well as using a modified loading chute, these modifications can reduce coal dust levels by at least 85% (Coal Dust Frequently Asked Questions, 2012). Even the topper agents can be sprayed over the loaded coal within the car in order to keep the coal in place while it is being transported to create a locked seal. Advanced compaction techniques could possibly be applied during the loading process of coal in order to decrease the amount of total coal dust created. The ecosystem functions of both the Pacific herring species and the eelgrass, are crucial to the self-sustaining ability of the marine waters in the Cherry Point area and the marine organisms in this environment—experiencing biodiversity loss in this region would be detrimental not only for the marine environment and ecosystem as a whole, but the irreplaceable ecological functions that this marine ecosystem provides to the human population would be lost.
I appreciate your time and really urge you to consider the coal dust effects upon the Cherry Point herring stock population as well as the eelgrass specie within this region of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal Project. As for mitigations, the project proposal should consider advanced sealant technologies that would reduce the amount of coal dust entering into the marine coastal waters of Cherry Point. These alterations and considerations have the ability to protect this herring stock from endangerment, play a part in reducing the amount of eelgrass beds that are disappearing due to human impact, and save these valuable ecological functions that are provided from both these specific species.
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