Setting the bar higher
It was good news and bad news in Grays Harbor when BHP Billiton announced September 4 that it is withdrawing its permit applications for a proposed potash export facility at Terminal 3 in Hoquiam, Washington.
The good news, for those of us who live in Grays Harbor who have been attending meetings, hearings, and writing letters since 2015, is that our voices were heard loud and clear. The county’s regulations, permits and environmental protection processes worked.
We do not need to pit economic development against community stakeholders and the environment.
Potash is the main ingredient in industrial fertilizer. The company exploring the terminal was BHP Billiton, the second largest mining company in the world. It is developing a huge underground potash mine near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. From there, BHP’s plan is to ship heavy train cars full of potash (rocks) 1,200 miles to Hoquiam, load huge bulk-carriers, exit the bar, and on to world fertilizer plants.
Negotiations between the Port, Quinault Nation, and the permitting agencies had been going on for 5 years when BHP abruptly announced it was withdrawing its application. BHP states it is looking instead into Fraser Surrey Docks in British Columbia along with several other terminals on the northwest coast of North America. .
But it is also a hollow victory because Grays Harbor County needs economic development, now more than ever. The announcement of BHP’s withdrawal came just three years after the Port of Grays Harbor publicly announced that shipping crude oil by rail and sea was “off the table” with the withdrawal of Contanda Grays Harbor and REG crude terminal projects. Our unemployment rate was 14% in July 2020.
If we want to achieve sustainable economic growth for Grays Harbor, we must stop selling our region short. What can we learn from the recent rejection of these two major Port of Grays Harbor development projects? According to a Port of Grays Harbor press release, BHP blamed “continuous local stakeholder concerns and ongoing regulatory hurdles with no resolution or permit completion timeline in sight.”
But is this really the fault of stakeholders, the permitting process and environmental regulations, or are there other considerations at work?
I thought hard and long about why so many Grays Harbor residents opposed the BHP terminal as I listened to hours of testimony during the hearings. There are things we can do to produce a better outcome when the next development proposal comes around:
Fix the railroad infrastructure to eliminate potential accidents
A few years ago, during the crude oil terminal threat, I looked at every single over-water (bridge) that the trains would have to cross in Grays Harbor County. There are a lot of such bridges and at that time, up to a quarter of them were in poor condition. The crude oil terminal would have relied on heavy trains traveling over 1,200 miles to Grays Harbor. How could we protect our waters with all the heavy trains crossing bridges?
Address the sediment problem at the source
Any proposal to add bulk carrier vessels with their deeper drafts would raise the question of deeper and more frequent dredging to remove sediment. Yet the costs of dredging, both to the bay’s health and to businesses, have not been fully considered. The first step would be to identify sources of sediment coming into the Harbor. Sources from the watershed such as construction sites, eroding shoreline, urban and agricultural runoff can be controlled at the source. Relying on continual dredging to keep the navigation channel open is hugely expensive, harms the environment and has a negative impact on harbor-dependent industries like oyster growers. Proposals that bring Increased shipping traffic also increase the risk of groundings and potential spills as ships cross the Chehalis River bar.
Clean up toxic contaminated industrial sites
Within the city limits of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, there are over 150 sites listed under the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). Ten of the sites are rated #1 as posing the most risk to humans and the environment. If the BHp Billiton project had proceeded, compensatory mitigation would have been required. BHP proponents said they would “restore” a toxic site on Port property that is listed as needing cleanup. One way to attract new economic growth would be to clean these sites up and prepare them for sustainable development. The Port should create a target for cleaning up promising sites, building a budget that could include aggressive pursuit of grants.
Recognize and support tribal treaty rights from the start.
If we stop proposing development that is in direct conflict with tribal rights it will save time and be more productive.
Protect and promote what is unique about Grays Harbor
Grays Harbor is home to vibrant shellfish, crab and fishing industries. The Grays Harbor National Wild Refuge is internationally known as significant shorebird habitat. Thousands of tourists visit the Refuge annually to participate in festivals, making it an economic engine of this community. Cumulative impacts of noise, light, traffic, dust, air pollution, and stormwater pollution that have a negative impact on birds threatens the viability of this source of economic activity. We should be working to minimize these impacts at the same time that we enhance our ecotourism sector. A recent US survey put the economic value generated every year by bird and other wildlife watchers at around $32 billion.
Identify the economic development we want
Finally, permitting processes are not onerous if we are clear from the start about what we want economic development to look like. We do not need to pit economic development against community stakeholders and the environment. A good healthy environment promotes and supports economic development that improves our community. There is no reason to let big international corporations prey on our willingness to ignore stakeholders and degrade our environment, as they try to water down regulatory processes. We can and should set the bar much higher.
Lee First is the Twin Harbors Waterkeeper.