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Killer whales in the crossroads; concerns raised over coal exports

Binoculars in hand, Val Viers keeps tabs on both shipping traffic off the west side of San Juan Island and, using an array of hydrophones, communications of killer whales that ply the waters of Haro Strait.  - Steve Wehrly
Binoculars in hand, Val Viers keeps tabs on both shipping traffic off the west side of San Juan Island and, using an array of hydrophones, communications of killer whales that ply the waters of Haro Strait.
— image credit: Steve Wehrly

By Steve WehrlyJournal reporter

Coal isn’t the only fuel firing the first stage of the Gateway Pacific Terminal protest.

Bunker fuel spills, noise pollution, and bilge and ballast water contamination were three of more than two dozen detrimental impacts listed at a recent workshop. The scoping workshop put on by Power Past Coal, a coalition of environmental and community groups, and Friends of the San Juans was held Thursday, Oct. 25, in Friday Harbor.

A similar event on Lopez drew about 60 people the day before, and another 60 people were expected for an evening workshop on Orcas Island following the Friday Harbor meeting.

Dick and Janet Wright of San Juan Island had immediateresponses to the “Why are you here today?” question: “Irreparable damage” to the ecosystem, Dick said. “We could witness a totally changed Northwest culture,” said Janet. “We’ve lived here for forty years and have never seen anything that threatened our lives like this.”

The workshops were part of preparations for a Nov. 3 scoping meeting in Friday Harbor and the 120-day scoping comment period announced recently by the Army Corps of Engineers, Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Ecology. These are the three “co-lead agencies” responsible for producing an Environmental Impact Statement studying impacts of the Cherry Point bulk loading terminal proposed by SSA Marine, the Seattle port facilities operator.

Stakes are high

If approved, the $650 million Gateway Terminal would be the largest bulk export facility on the West Coast, perhaps in the nation. At full capacity, it would be capable of exporting up to 54 million metric tons of coal per year, shipped by rail from Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin on coal-train caravans, each more than a mile long, that would circulate through the facility daily.

The coal would then be carried through the Salish Sea and the waters of the San Juan Islands by as many as 480 jumbo-sized container ships, the smallest of which are more than three football fields in length, each year to Asian markets, where it would be used for fuel.

Supporters cite the economic benefits the export facility will bring to the region, including the creation of as many as 2,000 new jobs and a boost for tax revenues for state and local governments. Critics claim the facility, and the increase in rail and shipping traffic it would demand, will produce more air and noise pollution, greater traffic congestion, put the natural environment at risk and undermine the region’s quality of life.

Orcas at the crossroads

Scientist Val Veirs, a retired physics professor who, from his shoreside vantage point near Smuggler’s Cove on San Juan Island, has listened to and watched killer whales and ships in Haro Strait for 10 years, wants to make sure that science informs and influences the government deciders who will consider the noise impacts that increased ship traffic might have on the endangered population of killer whales.

Veirs doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but he’s confident that he and his scientific colleagues, including state natural resources officials and federal fisheries experts, have good data and are developing even more that should lead to decisions that will protect the whales.

“I just want to make sure that the knowledge we’ve developed on whales, noise and ship traffic is given the level of consideration that our science deserves,” he said.

Veirs has kept close track of the 10,000 ships that have passed by Lime Kiln Lighthouse in a recent 16-month period, and he’s used an array of hydrophones to eavesdrop on the killer whales and to measure decibel levels of both orcas and ships. He talks about the cocktail-party-like “Lombard Effect” that ships have on orcas: “The whales markedly increase the loudness of their vocalizations when ship noise causes background interference with the social and feeding interactions of local pods,” he says. “It’s like they are yelling at each other just to be heard. This can’t be good for orca family life.”

He points out that marine mammals use sounds to communicate with others, listen for prey and predator sounds, and some use echolocation clicks for navigation and for foraging. We know what’s happening now, he says, “but we don’t know yet the extent of damage that could result if ship transits through Haro Strait increase dramatically to ship coal and oil to China.”

Veirs thinks the underwater noise could be very detrimental to whales — and he doesn’t even want to think about the effect a major fuel or cargo spill could have on the whales and the whole ecosystem.

Framing the debate

Veirs and Stephanie Buffum, executive director of Friends of the San Juans, are looking forward to participating in the EIS process, but Buffum isn’t thrilled with the setup for the Nov. 3 scoping meeting at Friday Harbor High School.

“They are herding us into a big room with multiple information stations, dividing up the group and asking for comments at each station,” she said. “I like the idea of information stations, but they should be outside the meeting room so that everyone can listen to what’s being said inside and learn what the general public wants from the EIS process.”

Randel Perry of the Regulatory Branch of the Army Corp of Engineers, one of the three co-lead agencies in charge of the EIS process, explains that the current round of meetings are only intended to frame the scope of the EIS, which will not be written until next year.

“I want to emphasize that people don’t testify at the scoping meeting about the merits of the Gateway Pacific Terminal,” Perry said.

Buffum said organizers have indicated that changes may be made for the first scoping meeting set-up, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 27, in Bellingham, so she’s hopeful that the Friday Harbor meeting and future scoping meetings will be more participant-friendly.

“We want everyone to know what’s being said and how people are expressing their ideas to the EIS co-lead agencies,” Buffum said. “We want people that support us and even people that support the project to see that our groups and our people are making sense and are serious about the problems that might result from this project and the other projects in the region.”

 

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