After years of study, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has unveiled a draft version of a management plan for the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve that could have significant impacts on some of Whatcom County's biggest industries.

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BELLINGHAM — After years of study, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has unveiled a draft version of a management plan for the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve that could have significant impacts on some of Whatcom County’s biggest industries.

The industries with deep-water docks in the area — BP and ConocoPhillips oil refineries and the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter — all had representatives on a panel that provided DNR with input on the plan as it was thrashed out over the past few years.

SSA Marine, developer of the proposed Gateway Pacific shipping terminal, was also represented. So were environmental groups, tribes, other state agencies and Whatcom County government.

DNR officials deny that the new management plan would disrupt existing industries or the long-simmering plans for the Gateway Pacific terminal.

Help for herring

But they agree the plan is meant to provide more environmental protection for a sensitive area that is home to a dwindling herring population — a vital food source for other struggling species, such as chinook salmon and seabirds.

“It doesn’t limit any current activity, and it would also allow for a fourth dock to be built,” department spokesman Aaron Toso said.

But SSA Marine Vice President Bob Watters said the plan contains language that makes his company nervous about committing $400 million to build a Gateway Pacific bulk commodities terminal that could create as many as 2,000 short-term construction jobs and a long-term payroll of 120 to 150.

Watters added that SSA is ready to begin the 12- to 18-month permitting process for the terminal. DNR’s proposed management plan may call that into question, but Watters stressed that the company is still studying the 198-page document.

“It’s going to have dramatic negative impact on the future and existing industries out there, potentially eroding jobs and tax base,” Watters said. “We have to reassess our position.”

Spokesmen for the oil refineries said they preferred to make written comments to DNR. Intalco did not respond to a request for comment.

Craig Cole, a former Whatcom County Council member who helped forge the county’s Cherry Point land-use plans, said he shares the fears he is hearing from his industry contacts. As he sees it, the plan imposes extra burdens of environmental proof on any new facilities in the area.

“That’s the area we’ve set aside for heavy industry, and on the whole it’s worked pretty well,” Cole said. “This plan basically shuts it down over time. It runs that risk.”

Kyle Murphy, DNR’s aquatic-reserves program manager, said such talk is overblown: The management plan acknowledges both existing industries and the proposed new terminal as compatible uses.

He also noted the three existing docks and the proposed new one are not inside the reserve. BP, ConocoPhillips and Intalco all have long-term leases with DNR to operate docks on the state’s tidelands.

But Murphy acknowledged that a more stringent management plan for the area surrounding the industrial leases could have an impact when and if those industries seek lease modifications for expansion.

“I don’t think the intent is to make it more difficult for them to expand,” Murphy said. “I think the intent is to manage those aquatic lands according to the best available science.”

DNR’s Toso said the Cherry Point plan is part of Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark’s effort to improve the environmental health of waterways.

“This is a broader commitment to restoration and recovery of the Sound,” Toso said. “We need to find a balance.”

But as Cole sees it, DNR’s new management plan threatens to upset the balance already in place after earlier county and state planning efforts.

Fear of job losses

“I think we took a rational approach to this,” Cole said. “I am an environmentalist, but I’m very concerned about the loss of high-value jobs in our economy. We don’t have that many anymore.”

The two refineries and the aluminum smelter account for about 1,500 direct jobs, and probably at least that many more indirect jobs. A recent study estimated Intalco alone produces 1,500 indirect jobs, in addition to its 500-person payroll.

Meanwhile, the herring population remains in crisis. Kurt Stick, herring biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he has not yet completed his annual survey of Cherry Point herring, but preliminary indications are not good.

“Tentatively, it looks like it’s going to be very close to our lowest on record,” Stick said.