"This notice is to give you the opportunity to comment on the proposal and review process."
Say what? 30 days? No, make that 28 days. May 16, 2012 to be exact.
On March 20th, an estimated 800 people packed Bellingham High School's Auditorium to listen to county, state and federal staff members talk about the review process for Gateway Pacific. During that presentation, two issues were discussed: 1) the timeline for environmental review and 2) that any public comments submitted prior to scoping will have to be resubmitted once scoping begins.
The presentation slides can be found on Whatcom County's website here.
On Slide 17, the next steps are identified as:
· County determines if application is complete (completed on April 2, 2012)
· County, state and feds issue notices to start scoping and the EIS process
· Scoping process and public meetings begin
Not one mention of a notice of application with 30 -- no, make that 28 days to comment on the coal port application. So, what gives?
John Watts posted a blog on hamstertalk where he expressed frustration, and even infuriation, after that March 20th public meeting because all the concerns that "have been registered to date must be resubmitted after the date the official clock- stopwatch- gets started."
If you received a notice that you had 30 -- no, 28 days to now comment on North America's largest coal port, and if you had attended that meeting, would you think that now might be the time to submit your scoping comments? If you assumed yes and are busy writing your scoping comments -- WAIT!
Since this isn't a scoping notice, and according to the presenters at the March 20th meeting, any comments you submit now will have to be submitted again, then your comments now on the scope of the EIS will not be considered.
So what exactly is the purpose of this "notice of application" and what should I comment on?
In 1995, Washington State passed "regulatory reform" legislation (RCW 36.70B). One of the requirements was a "notice of application". The major point of the notice is to inform the public that an application is submitted, identify early in the process the agencies and permits that might be required, and let the public know of the date, time, place and type of hearing.
But, why didn't Whatcom County disclose this step when they had captured the attention of 800 people on March 20th? Everyone left that meeting thinking that the next notice would be "their time to comment." And, is this notice of application really the right notice at this point?
I found it quite odd to have received this notice, especially with the 30 day -- now 28 day clock. So I decided to look at the County ordinance that adopted the procedures for notice of this type of project. What I found was that if "the county has made a determination of significance", in other words an EIS would be required, then "the determination of significance and scoping notice shall be combined with the notice of application." WCC 2.33.060(B)
I left out five words in this quotation of county code. The code says if the county had made this determination "concurrently with notice of application". Perhaps Whatcom County might argue that technically they have not yet issued that determination, but when you look at the coal port's application, endnote iii on page 10 of 10 says "the County SEPA Responsible Official has determined that an EIS will be required," which is repeated in several spots in the application. The applicants relied on this fact since they didn't turn in a SEPA checklist -- a required part of the application in order to determine it complete. In other words, the application was not complete unless a determination of significance was assumed.
Everyone knows an EIS is required. Wouldn't it have been clearer and less "regulatory burden" to the agencies and public to have just one comment period at the onset of reviewing North America's largest coal port?
I think so. And I think the letter, if not the spirit of the law, says that the notice at this stage should be combined.
After all, the County had plenty of notice that the application was coming in. Even Get Whatcom Planning knew that the party was happening on March 20th.
P.S. If you are compelled to write something at this time, you might identify any other permits or agencies that should be involved in this project. You might also ask that the public hearing process be clearly spelled out (something that was obviously missing in the March 20th discussion).
Now, get back to more useful things, like rural sprawl.