Bill could ease path for coal terminal, critics claim

OLYMPIA — A Lake Stevens state senator is causing a furor with a bill about gravel that opponents worry is really about coal.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is trying to get a proposed gravel mining operation in Jefferson County covered under a state law that allows expedited permitting for major industrial projects.

But there is concern the wording in his bill is too broad and could pave the way for faster approval of a controversial coal export pier at Cherry Point in Whatcom County.

Hobbs, a supporter of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, denied he’s attempting to give it a boost with his legislation.

“This is not about coal,” Hobbs said. “Personally, I think some folks are interpreting this in the wrong way.”

Senate Bill 5805 deals with projects deemed to have a statewide significance.

It seeks to expand the definition of eligible projects to include ones involving “the basic commodities of transportation, energy development, conservation or efficiency.”

Also, under the current law, a project cannot be designated as significant without the written support of the community where it is located. The bill would erase that requirement.

Hobbs is trying to assist Thorndyke Resources, which has spent a dozen years seeking approval to mine gravel and sand in Shine on the west end of the Hood Canal bridge.

Opponents said the language could apply to the Cherry Point coal project, too. It could allow the state to fast-track it and silence communities that have expressed concerns or outright opposition to all aspects of the project, they said.

“This is simply bad policy,” said Bruce Wishart, lobbyist for several groups including the Sierra Club and Washington Environmental Council. “He’ll need to read the bill more carefully.”

Hobbs’ bill had moved briskly through the process. It had a hearing Feb. 19 and three days later was on the floor calendar for a vote.

Lawmakers began voicing concerns. Three Democratic senators filed amendments to strip away most of the changes. And a House member unleashed a biting criticism of it, too.

“It is beyond me why the Senate would push this explosive, politically charged legislation that fast tracks coal exports by effectively eliminating any meaningful role for local communities,” said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “There is little doubt that this bill would, if pushed hard by the Senate, unleash a level of discord that no one wants to see.”

With questions mounting, Hobbs said Friday it won’t come up for a vote in the Senate until he drafts language to make its intent clearer.

“We need to look at this and take a step back,” he said. “We are trying to find ways to alleviate concerns.”

Business and labor leaders are helping out as they want to see it pass.

“I don’t know what the final language will be,” said Mike Ennis, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business. “This bill was never intended to have anything to do with the coal issue and it’s unfortunate that the link has been made by some.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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