Once, or sometimes twice a week I walk my dogs at Cherry Point. It’s the best off leash dog park around and they love it.
As many of you probably know Cherry Point is a real conundrum for County Council members these days. While many are allowed to read about and attend meetings regarding the proposed SSA coal port, Councilmembers have been advised by our attorneys to stay as blissfully ignorant of the entire proposal as possible. Since we may ultimate make the decision on whether that coal port goes in or not we are supposed to maintain our "appearance of fairness" by doing our best not to form an opinion about the proposal until the process plays itself out and all the information from all the different parties is given to us to make our decision. If we are seen attending anti-coal forums or having private lunches with Craig Cole from SSA, someone could challenge our impartiality and ultimately our right to be part of the decision.
Well now my dog walking adventures have put me between a rock and a hard place regarding this appearance of fairness. While wandering around Cherry Point a couple week ago we noticed that someone had started clearing parts of the wetlands on the SSA property at Cherry Point. I thought that was odd since the Council had just recently been told by our planning staff that to date SSA had not even submitted a complete application for their project, let alone been given permits to start clearing anything. So my dogs and I investigated a little and what we found was somewhere in the area of 2.5 to 3 miles of new roads have been cleared through the wetlands at Cherry Point in the exact location where the new rail loop would be placed to dump the coal. Here is a very basic map of where the clearing has occurred.
It would appear that based on the length and width of the new roads that about 4.5 acres of wetlands have been cleared to push these new roads into the wetlands (2.5 miles of road x 5280 feet x 15 foot wide roads / 43,560 square feet per acre). Here are some pictures of these new roads.
Last week I checked with the County's Planning and Development Services (PDS) since they are the ones that are permitting this project and should know about such activities on the site. They did not know about this clearing and road building, but said they would be in the area the following day and would stop by and take a look. When I checked back with PDS a couple days later they said that yes the clearing and road building had been done without proper permits, and that the company had been told to apply for a clearing permit after the fact and had been told to restore the site. PDS also said they had contacted the Department of Natural Resources in case some form of forest practice application should have been obtained. They were very surprised that SSA would have done this without the proper authorization. They said the roads had been put in to drill some monitoring wells. Here is a photo of one of those drilling sites at the end of one of these new roads.
They also said that SSA had asked for and was given written permission in 2008 to drill some monitoring wells, but that permission did not include permission to clear vegetation or do anything near this level of ground disturbance. That made sense to me because over the course of the last couple years my dogs and I had seen a number of monitoring wells go into the fields and along the edges of the forests at Cherry Point. Those monitoring wells disturbed very little, and are within this time frame, so I assume those were the wells that PDS gave SSA permission to drill. Here are some pictures of those earlier wells.
So what happens now because of the unpermitted clearing and road building? How much damage has this done to the wetlands that a good deal of the pending environmental review would be concerned with?
Those questions, and I suspect more, are for someone else to figure out. I don't really even know what part SSA played in this clearing. My purpose pointing this out to PDS was to make sure all the County rules were being followed. My purpose posting this information here, and submitting it to PDS and all my fellow councilmembers is to make sure we all have this information for whatever it is worth as part of our future decision making, and that I am not the only one that has this information. Full disclosure accomplished?
The coal port proposal will go through tons of analysis on a whole range of important issues, and the wetlands disturbed by this unpermitted clearing is only one issue. I do find it more than a little disturbing that a company that has been claiming they will build this huge project in an environmentally friendly manner that far exceeds how such facilities have been built anywhere else on earth made such a substantial permitting blunder when they know they are under a public microscope. Hopefully they can do better from here on out!
Here are a few more pictures from the clearing.
Buddy (the County's chief compliance officer) was up way too early this morning wanting to get back to Cherry Point to continue his nosing around.
We got out there early enough to run into a couple of deer and a coyote, and saw some large flocks of goldfinches in the fields. We walked west on Henry Road from the closed gate at Gulf Road (this is still a public road even past the locked gate).
We found some additional clearing on the parcel just west of where the clearing above occurred. This clearing runs parallel to Henry Road from nearly Gulf Road to the top of the bank of the creek that divides this parcel. Below is a map.
This probably represents about another quarter acre of clearing. Here are some pictures of it.