Ecology on Hot Seat About Coal-Port Analysis — Business Calls it Bizarre, Worrisome

Letter From Ecology Raises New Doubt About Environmental Review – State May Duck Basic Logical Question, ‘Compared to What?’

OLYMPIA, Sept. 3.—Ever since the state Department of Ecology announced a month ago that it would measure a coal-port proposal near Bellingham against an unprecedented yardstick – air pollution on the other side of the world – critics have been wondering if the state’s environmental review process will have even a distant relationship with fairness.

Now a letter from Ecology to state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, seems to confirm the worst of their fears. Nowhere does it mention that the state pollution analysis plans to ask a fundamental logical question – “compared to what?” And it asserts that state regulators have the right to determine which products can be shipped from the state of Washington whenever they believe the environmental impact will be “significant” – an expansion of authority some lawmakers and business figures see as a frightful principle that could be applied to every other major enterprise in the Evergreen State, from port facilities to agriculture, crude-oil shipments by rail, and the manufacturing of trucks and airplanes.

What the new Ecology letter does is to clarify the agency’s position, but in a way that makes critics shudder. The state Public Ports Association says it ought to worry business throughout Washington state. Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, says Ecology appears to be using state environmental regulations to establish control over interstate commerce – something that would be prohibited by the U.S. Constitution if it was done in a straightforward way. “It is wide-open and it is bizarre and it is like nothing I have seen before,” he says. “It is precedent-setting.”

Ecology’s decision has been sending shock waves through business for the last month, even as it has been cheered by green groups and Seattle-centric interests as a statement against the use of fossil fuels. Two major coal shipping terminals are on the drawing boards, near Bellingham at Cherry Point and at the Port of Longview, to serve the burgeoning appetite of the Chinese market for American coal. Environmental groups have made the two ports their focus in a larger campaign to block the transportation and thus the use of fossil fuels – not just coal but crude oil and natural gas – all in the name of preventing global warming.

The agency maintains it has the right to inject big-picture political concerns into what ordinarily would be a technical review of local environmental issues, and that it can frame its criteria as it chooses — even if it means no developer can possibly address its concerns. “They came back saying they can do whatever they want, the Legislature has no authority, and they will continue to operate in that fashion,” Ericksen says. “For the Department of Ecology and the governor’s office to pick and choose which industry groups and which permits shall receive greater scrutiny is going to have a chilling impact on job creation in Washington state.”