Environmental protection and land use planning issues have been increasingly important to public ports in Washington State, and throughout the United States, for many years.
Port commissioners and staff must balance the region’s strong environmental protection goals with the reality of global competition.
Ports often operate at the interface of land and water, and are located in areas crucial to plant and animal life. In addition, many ports develop property in heavy industrial areas contaminated for generations. Ports have become adept at blending the federal, state, and local environmental mandates while recognizing the need for economic development. Some ports have invested heavily in environmental cleanups, preparing areas for future development.
Many of Washington’s native salmon runs have been listed as either threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Indeed, some of the first salmon listed under the act were runs native to the Snake River. Residents of the region have been debating for years how to best protect and revitalize the salmon runs while allowing the livelihoods dependent on them to continue. A solution frequently offered is the breaching of some dams along the Snake River.
Breaching the dams would certainly destroy the livelihoods of the communities and people who depend on the water, navigation and power they provide. It would virtually end the ports serving the Snake River. But it might not help the salmon at all – experts are divided as to how much, if any, relief it would provide.
Most of the agricultural goods grown in the inland Northwest are barged down the Snake River to markets across the nation and globe. If barge navigation were stopped – as it would be by dam breaching – it would take an additional 120,000 rail cars to move that cargo to market. Washington’s rail system is currently at capacity; it simply couldn’t absorb that type of increase. And some areas are not adequately served by rail. Truck movement isn’t viable either: it would take 700,000 more semi-trucks to move that amount of cargo, placing unacceptable burdens on the state’s highways.
Salmon recovery is important to Washington – no doubt about it. But so is getting goods to market, and barge travel is a crucial component of Washington trade. It’s imperative that a solution be found that protects both environment and economy.
Almost all ports with deep-draft navigation need to dredge sediments in order to maintain navigation. Many of our nation’s navigation channels are considered to be so critical to national interests that they are dredged with help from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Other areas, including berthing areas such as piers and marinas, are dredged solely by the port authority in question.
The dredging and disposal of sediment materials is one of the most closely regulated activities in environmental protection. Each dredging project is reviewed by federal, state and local authorities, and those reviews examine the need and justification for the project. Ports must thoroughly test any sediment that will be dredged, determining if any contamination in the sediment poses a threat to human health and the environment.
If sediment is clean, it can be disposed of at an approved open-water site or used for beach nourishment or habitat creation. If it’s not clean, then it must be placed in a confined disposal facility where it can be isolated from the environment.
As global trade increases and ships from all over the world call at Washington’s ports, invasive species can sometimes be accidentally introduced into a harbor through a ship’s ballast water. These species sometimes thrive in the new environment, crowding out the native plants and animals.
Our state is blessed with a bounty of sensitive native aquatic species that live in the Columbia River, along the coast, and in Puget Sound. When an ocean-going vessel arrives at a port, it may discharge ballast water picked up in a faraway port of call, pumped in to counterbalance the weight of cargo and prevent the vessel from rolling or breaking in half. If invasive species are in that water, they can rapidly gain a foothold in the new environment and spread.
To prevent these invasions, vessels calling at Washington ports are advised to perform “open ocean” ballast water exchange. A vessel pumps out ballast water in the open ocean, replacing it with water found at sea. Sometimes, severe weather prevents a ship from performing this kind of exchange – high seas pose too much danger for ships to complete the maneuver. In addition, some ships still operate with outdated technology that prevents it from exchanging water in the open sea.
Port staff members and agency personnel continue to research ways to prevent the introduction of invasive species into our waters.
Development, particularly in sensitive shoreline areas, can have significant impact on marine or freshwater aquatic habitats. Any project that calls for development of shoreline property goes through a rigorous environmental review from the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Washington Department of Ecology, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. These agencies (and sometimes others) require that any habitat lost because of shoreline development be replaced completely.
Because most ports are in urban areas, the shoreline habitats affected by port development are often already degraded. When that is the case, ports have the opportunity to improve an estuary or riverine area by restoring or creating new natural areas where they are most needed. Careful planning in conjunction with tribes and agencies can often improve habitats in urban areas while also improving port facilities and creating new jobs.
Many ports operate at the bottom of river basins, in the estuaries and along the shorelines of major rivers. Consequently, as sources of pollution move downstream they often collect in the sediments of our harbors. Sediments have also been contaminated by the industrial land uses that historically exist around cities.
Washington’s ports have become leaders in cleaning up these contaminated sediments. When ports dredge up sediment for shoreline development or to improve harbor navigation, they follow strict cleanup requirements. Contaminated sediments are disposed of in special containment areas either along the shoreline or in landfills – resulting in a cleaner harbor.
Ports have completed many successful cleanups, including:
In 1985, the Port of Seattle created a confined disposal facility at the north end of Elliott Bay, behind the twin piers. Sediments contaminated with PAHs, PCBs and metals (such as lead) were placed behind a protective berm and capped with asphalt. Monitoring wells were placed around this site, and have proven that no contaminants moved out of the site since then.
In addition, the Port of Seattle built the Bell Harbor Marina on Seattle’s central waterfront in 1994. Some of this area was capped with a layer of clean sediment, and strips of cobble rock were added to enhance the habitat of the area. Monitoring to date shows that contaminants are not moving, and the area is being recolonized by marine life.
Port Gardner Bay
In 1996, the Port of Everett dredged contaminated sediments from the Everett berthing areas, and placed them behind a protective berm on the Everett waterfront. These sediments were contaminated with PAHs and hydrocarbons, mostly from storm water sources. Monitoring and modeling of the site shows no migration of contamination. Because of this successful cleanup, the Port of Everett has now embarked on an ambitious redevelopment project of the historic waterfront, bringing new jobs and development to a once struggling area.
In 1994, the Port of Tacoma dredged contaminated sediments from the Sitcum and Blair Waterways in Tacoma, placing them behind a protective berm in the Milwaukee Waterway. The sediments were then capped and fish habitat at the mouth of the waterway was restored.
Since then, the Port of Tacoma has continued dredging efforts in both waterways, capping contaminated sediments in approved sites and maintaining the health of the waterways.
In 2005, the Port of Bellingham embarked on an ambitious project to clean and redevelop the former Georgia Pacific property. When completed, sediments contaminated by decades of industrial use will be disposed of and the waterfront will feature new business, industrial, and residential development.
The Washington State Office of Regulatory Assistance offers an online permit assistance program (OPAS) designed to help agencies and individuals navigate the many permits required when developing or improving property or facilities in Washington State. To access the site, please visit: http://www.ora.wa.gov/default.asp.
Proposals to site coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest have resulted in vocal opposition by local communities and environmental groups. The concerns include the construction and development of the terminals themselves, perceived impacts to rail capacity, environmental effects, traffic delays, and overall quality of life. Subsequently, these groups have submitted comments to various agencies requesting a programmatic or area-wide environmental impact study (EIS) of all proposed sites in the Pacific Northwest. With proper investment, WPPA is confident of our region’s ability to accommodate anticipated increased rail shipments of all cargoes. Our trade forecasts are bullish, and requiring a programmatic EIS on this issue is an unwarranted precedent in the most trade-dependent state in the nation.
Broader effects of a programmatic or area-wide EIS:
Currently interest groups are requesting a programmatic EIS only for bulk coal shipments, but it is legally difficult to distinguish coal from other kinds of cargo. Many bulk products are shipped using similar methods, over similar distances, impacting similar communities. Requiring a programmatic EIS for coal shipments opens up the possibility of requiring such an EIS for all cargoes. This would result in less efficient movement of cargo in general, which means less business investment, fewer jobs, and increased negative economic impacts including a loss of tax revenues for state and local governments. The movement of goods, no matter the commodity being moved, creates the economic basis that stimulates investments in roads, rail, and other basic infrastructure. An overly burdensome environmental analysis creates inefficiencies that jeopardize these investments.
Washington Public Ports Position:
Analysis of potential cumulative impacts is a component of the SEPA and NEPA review of all freight infrastructure projects. However, this has never been interpreted to require an analysis that stretches to include the production of the product; it’s transportation to markets, and its ultimate use. Requiring such an analysis, as part of either a programmatic or project-specific EIS, would be unprecedented and highly detrimental to the development of freight infrastructure and to Washington’s trade-based economy. WPPA supports limiting analyses to the potential impacts of the project itself, not the broad overall movement of cargo across a region.
Opponents of the coal export terminals assert that the resulting increase in freight rail traffic will cause a shortage of capacity for other types of cargo. Our studies indicate that overall freight movement will increase on our rail system, and that near-term our state’s rail capacity is adequate, even with the addition of coal trains.
However, there are a number of critical rail improvement projects around the state that are important to support desired growth in our overall trade-dependent economy, whether or not significant increases in the rail transport of coal across Washington occur. These projects need increased investment from railroads, the state, ports and others in order to grow capacity, and meet our forecasts for increased trade in a variety of cargoes.
Washington Public Ports Position:
WPPA agrees that rail infrastructure should be improved, where needed, to keep cargo moving efficiently. WPPA supports continued investment by ports, railroads, and agencies such as the Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board and WSDOT in grade crossing and rail system improvements.
Quality of life in our local communities:
Concerns about the disruption of train crossings to local communities are warranted and should be addressed. The length and number of trains will certainly result in longer wait times at at-grade crossings. Significant increased investment in overpasses and other grade-separations, as well as operational changes, will be needed in some communities.
Some groups have raised concerns about coal dust blowing off passing trains. The railroads and shippers must demonstrate to our regulatory agencies how coal dust impacts will be minimized, and kept at levels that are safe for our citizens.
Washington Public Ports Position:
WPPA believes that, where feasible and appropriate, railroads should make operational changes and improvements to overpasses and reduce at-grade crossings in order to avoid disruptions in local communities.
Concerns about issues such as coal dust should be studied by environmental regulators. Should impacts be found, they should be addressed and mitigated by the coal shippers and railroads.