Of coal ships and critical areas | Guest Column

Kyle Loring - Contributed photo
Kyle Loring
— image credit: Contributed photo

By Kyle Loring

On Nov. 3, more than 400 community members gathered for a coal scoping hearing where over 95 percent of the public testimony energetically expressed concerns about a proposed coal shipping terminal at Cherry Point.

That sizable turnout confirms just how deeply our island communities care about the biological vibrancy and natural beauty of our surroundings.

Yet this devotion lessens when the focus shifts from the potential impacts of large corporations exporting coal to the certain but incremental local impacts of our individual decisions about how to develop the land. It shouldn’t.

Whether a spawning beach is covered by oil or eroded, or covered, by a bulkhead, the same fish must look for a new home.

San Juan County is on the verge of adopting one of the weakest critical areas ordinances in the Puget Sound region. The ordinance’s buffers are designed to allow 40 percent of all local pollution into our streams, lakes, and seas. And this number doesn’t include the numerous exemptions or buffer decreases authorized by the ordinance as well.

For example, it would force the county to permit new buildings as close to the shorelines as adjacent, existing structures, fossilizing development patterns that arose before we knew just how important natural shorelines are for animals like salmon and orcas. According to the Washington state Department of Ecology (who knows about this sort of thing), it would protect far less habitat than needed for sensitive wetland-dependent frogs and salamanders. It would even allow the construction of septic tanks in streams, not that that would be a great idea.

Recent letters to the editor suggest that we don’t need environmental protections as strong as other counties because our community voluntarily protects our ecosystems better than they do. Local science, however, reveals a different story.

We have lost an estimated 59 percent of the area of our tidal marshes since 1884, a far higher percentage than any other Puget Sound county. Shoreline properties developed since 1977 have lost an average of 20 percent of their shoreline trees. Elevated levels of pesticides permeate many San Juan County streams, lakes, and ponds. And although people grow tired of hearing that Westcott Bay has lost most of its eelgrass and all associated herring spawning, it is a big deal to lose 1-of-only-4 herring spawning regions in the islands.

When you add the fact that bulkheads and other armoring cover nearly one-fifth of documented fish spawning beaches in the San Juans, our community has already lost a lot of space for wildlife. But it’s not just the wildlife — we lose a part of our identity that celebrates our wild shorelines.

The coal terminal may lead to devastating impacts to our shorelines. But inadequate protections for our streams, wetlands, and marine shorelines will do the same.

On Nov. 27, you can tell the County Council to adopt protections that apply local and regional science and that allow development while accommodating our most sensitive natural neighbors. They deserve it. And since seven years have passed since the deadline for this ordinance, let’s get it done now, and let’s get it done right.

To see the latest drafts of the CAO, visit: http://www.co.san-juan.wa.us/cao/documents.aspx. For more about the CAO and Friends of the San Juans’ concerns, visit: http://www.sanjuans.org/CriticalAreas.htm.

— Editor’s note: Kyle Loring is staff attorney of Friends of the San Juans


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