Dateline Earth

Dateline Earth takes the broad view of what’s going on environmentally. Yes, we live in western North America. But we’re all over the map when it comes to the story of the century: climate change and, more broadly, the environment’s effect on all of our lives.

Noted Kenyan traveled long path to peace prize

Editors Note: Kenyan Environmentalist Wagari Maathai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, died Sept. 26.

By John Mbaria
Special to InvestigateWest

I personally knew Professor Wagari Maathai, long before the world had fully acknowledged her struggles. 

I was in university when she took on the Kanu Government for attempting to put up a 60-storey private building in Uhuru Park, the biggest public park. And even though matters environment had not engulfed my inner man, I was fascinated that an ‘ordinary soul’ had dared to go against the wishes of baba na mama (euphemism for the then mighty Kanu Party). Few of us at the University of Nairobi were dedicated to any cause. Although we would find immense excitement as we ganged up to stage riots over issues we thought were important, hardly did environmental issues in general or Wangari Maathai’s causes in particular, feature in our struggles.

Our lives’ journeys were to come to a confluence when I became an environmental reporter with The EastAfrican and later a columnist with Daily Nation. This wasin the early 2000s. Around the time, the regime of the former President Daniel Moi had stubbornly refused to see the sense in sparing the last of the country’s ecosystems. At the time, the ruling party’s intransigence had become legendary. And to crown its folly, the regime came up with one devious anti-environment scheme after another. If it was not the decimation of Karura forest, it was Ngong Forest, if not Ngong, it was Mount Kenya forests, Marmanet, Sirimoni, Kaptagat, Maasai Mau and so on ad nauseum.

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Cherry Point coal-export port hits two setbacks on environmental front

The controversial proposal for a major coal-export port to be built at Cherry Point near Bellingham hit two big setbacks this week: environmentalists broke off talks with the developer, SSA Marine, which was also caught building a road through forested wetlands without proper permits.

With this news still fresh, we're taking the opportunity to publish the second installment of the package we posted earlier this summer by Western Washington University journalism students who  took an in-depth look at the proposal. 

Briefly, here are this week's developments:

 

 

Byline: 

Proposed coal-export terminal would boost sagging local government budgets

By Rachel Lerman and Celeste Erickson

Officials in Ferndale are optimistic about how potential industrial development at the Gateway Pacific Terminal would help their struggling community.

“Everybody paid for Intalco,” Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen said of the 2001 shuttering of a major aluminum smelter that is now running again. “The (Gateway) terminal would be important for the county because of those increased tax values. It will allow us to keep up with the growth of the county.”

If built, the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would stand between two existing heavy industries at Cherry Point, west of Ferndale, the BP Refinery and Alcoa-Intalco Works.

The proposed location would be outside the city limits in an unincorporated area.

Tax revenue from the project would go to sectors in Whatcom County including Fire District 7 as well as the Ferndale School District. The estimated property tax and new construction revenue would be divided into several public service districts in Whatcom County such as fire districts, schools, roads, libraries, cemeteries, emergency medical services and water and sewer systems.

The bulk of new money would come from the taxes levied during construction of the facility.

The 1,092-acre site would pay an estimated $54 million per year in state and local taxes during construction, and about $10 million annually after that.

Additional tax revenues generated by building the terminal could help keep tax rates low, said Whatcom County Assessor Keith Willnauer. After construction is completed in two to three years, the property would continue to buoy local tax coffers.

Officials hope to also see a spillover effect into Ferndale proper.  Ferndale has available land for industrial and retail growth, Jensen said.

“When industrial development does well, that affects a lot of people. Right now we are hurting,” Jensen said.

Environmental effects of proposed Cherry Point coal plan debated

By Raymond Flores and Andrew Donaldson

Western Washington University

The tiny nub of forested land poking into the sheltered Strait of Georgia represents a diverse aquatic environment surrounding potentially hazardous, but economically healthy, industry. Rural Cherry Point, west of Ferndale, is the new epicenter in a raging debate over global commerce.

The state aquatic reserve at Cherry Point, established in 2000, engulfs three industrial wharfs and could be home to a fourth if the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal is built. A new dock, trestle, commodity storage area and conveyor belts would mean development on 350 acres of the 1,200-acre project site.

The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Management Plan was adopted in 2010 by the Department of Natural Resources to protect and restore marine habitat, aquatic vegetation and water quality around what was the state’s largest herring stock – one that is now struggling, worrying conservationists. Aquatic reserve lands are set aside for their environmental, educational or scientific interest, according to the management plan.

The management plan was put into effect for the protection of valuable aquatic lands, but recognizes historical use of aquatic zones for industry and commerce. The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve makes up 227 of the 2.6 million acres included in the Washington State Aquatic Reserve Program.

Cherry Point, an unicorporated area zoned for high-impact industrial use, has been the home of the BP and ConocoPhillips oil refineries, as well as the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter, for decades.

Fishing town struggling in wake of tsunami

By Matt Drange

California Watch

 It's been four months since tsunami waves generated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan ravaged the harbor in Northern California's Crescent City, destroying pilings and sinking 16 boats after ripping them from their docks.

But the diminutive harbor is still a long way from functional, crippling to a local economy dependent on the fishing industry. Tsunami victims, meanwhile, are finding little help in disaster relief, much of it in the form of reimbursements and loans they can’t afford.

Excluding the inmates who reside in Pelican Bay State Prison, Crescent City is home to about 4,200 people. The town already took a significant hit when most of the lumber mills and fish processing facilities were shuttered in the last decade, forcing hundreds to leave in search of jobs. Once home to eight lumber mills and three fish processing plants, Crescent City is down to just one of each.

“In a small community, when you lose 100 jobs, it's a big impact. Maybe five years ago, in the good ol' days, if you will, it wouldn't have been so bad,” said Bill Renfroe, executive director of Crescent City's Tri-Agency Economic Development Authority. “But today, with everybody struggling, it's a serious impact.”

Tsunami surges deposited more than 78,000 cubic yards of sediment in the inner boat basin, making it as shallow as four feet in some areas and effectively shutting out boats longer than 15 feet. The harbor is the largest Dungeness crab exporter on the West Coast. At one time, it had more than 100 fishing vessels; now there are only a handful.

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Should Port of Seattle hasten air-pollution cleanup?

Our recent collaboration with KCTS Channel 9 on worrisome air pollution levels in south Seattle looked hard at the role played by the 1,800 to 2,000 truck trips that do business at the Port of Seattle on an average workday.

Today the Seattle Port Commission deals directly with the air-pollution controversy we covered.  Staff members are scheduled to brief the commission on the agency's air-pollution-reduction programs.

The background: the Port Commission failed on complicated but essentially 3-2 votes in December 2010 to speed up the air-pollution cleanup process and to support federal legislation giving ports more authority to regulate the trucks. Seattle City Council members Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien, along with state Rep. Dave Upthegrove, asked the commission to go the other way. Commissioner Gael Tarleton appears to have been the swing vote.*

But in January of this year the commission, on a motion by Tarleton, agreed 5-0 to ask its staff to look into what might be done to clean up port-related air pollution sooner, citing "an urgent need to address the public health risks of poor air quality caused by expanding container (ship) traffic, the continued strength of cruise ship visits, and the associated growth in port trucking..."

Byline: 
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Should Washington become the king of shipping coal to China?

Have you ever had to wait for a train at, say, Broad Street in Seattle, right by the SAM Sculpture Park? Or anyplace else along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that hug the coast of Puget Sound?

Imagine roughly doubling the train traffic on that railroad. Imagine further that each of these new trains is a mile and a half long. That’s a lot of waiting at railroad crossings.

But critics of the Gateway Pacific Terminal – the proposed coal-exporting port near Bellingham that would service those very long trains full of coal  – say that’s only the first of many impacts on communities and the environment because of the terminal’s overall purpose: sending up to 48 million tons of coal to China every year.

Topping the list of environmental impacts is climate change. The Chinese would burn a *lot* of coal, the most climate-unfriendly of the major energy sources. Plus there are the greenhouse gases emitted bringing the coal here from the Power River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.  And – oh, yeah –air pollution created in China can find its way to our shores in just a week and a half.

On the other hand, you may have noticed that financially, many of our neighbors are hurting. The proposed coal-exporting terminal west of Ferndale would mean hundreds of jobs – those “family-wage” jobs that are increasingly hard to find in Western Washington.  The naturally deep port at Cherry Point would not need to be dredged, proponents of the terminal point out. And the Powder River coal is low-sulfur, meaning it creates less lung-attacking pollution when burned than the higher-sulfur coal the Chinese might obtain from elsewhere.

Byline: 

Bill Gates: Boost federal funds for energy research to fight climate change

There’s an urgent need – recognized by leaders of such venerable corporate giants as Xerox, GE and Lockheed Martin – for the American government to inject a lot of cash in a big hurry into alternative energy research, Microsoft founder Bill Gates told 1,200 climate activists and business people in Seattle on Tuesday.

To head off climate catastrophe, “the innovation piece is so important,” Gates said at a fundraising breakfast for the Seattle-based non-profit Climate Solutions. “The lip service that has been paid to energy innovation over the last few decades is disappointing.”

Gates and others from the upper echelons of the corporate world banded together as the American Energy Innovation Council and pushed hard for a boost in federal energy research spending from $5 billion to $16 billion annually.

“President Obama did see us. He said nice things, and I think he meant them,” Gates joked during an on-stage interview by Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive who is co-president of Climate Solutions.

Nevertheless, the CEOs’ bid ultimately was shot down. Gates said that at a less dire time financially, it’s likely the group would have succeeded, and that the executives must keep trying.

Gates advocated research into many different energy sources, including nuclear, solar and wind power, that do not produce the gases scientists say are unnaturally heating the earth’s atmosphere, chiefly carbon dioxide. Many research projects won’t get very far but lots of them should be tried, said Gates, who is known widely for his philanthropy as well as his success at Redmond-based Microsoft.

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