Odd provision in state law severely uncuts growth management

U.S. laws limit the burning of coal here, and Washington state has a strong green influence. Passenger rail in Seattle and beyond would suffer consequences from shipments to Bellingham. But the financial firepower lined up in favor of shipping coal from Washington ports to China is gigantic.

Shipping coal to Asia has become a major business in Canada.

Shipping coal to Asia has become a major business in Canada. Port Metro Vancouver

Washington may be on the verge of a classic environmental and political battle, due to China's insatiable demand for coal. The state's deep-water ports stand between the Asian giant and the massive Powder River strip mines of Montana and Wyoming.

Add to the oversize characters in the drama the world's largest stevedoring company, the region's dominant railroad, and one of the world's richest investors.

Against this formidable lineup will be organized opposition from the region's major environmental organizations and from community activists protective of the livability of the region and their neighborhoods in particular.

Economically, the looming match-up is overwhelmingly weighted to the big corporations involved, including Seattle-based Carrix Inc., the international giant that owns SSA Marine, the largest stevedoring company in the world. Politically, major players are keeping their heads down, respectful of the economic clout involved but also aware of the political power of Washington Greens.

Gov. Christine Gregoire's Department of Ecology, however, intervened on behalf of environmentalists attempting to stop Cowlitz County from approving a coal port at Longview, on the site of a former aluminum plant. Environmentalists are also watching closely as Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark goes about assessing plans to build a big shipping terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, primarily to allow Burlington Northern Santa Fe to haul coal from Powder River. Sensitive aquatic sites are part of the process at Cherry Point; the Columbia River's fish and wildlife are keys to the Longview process.

Gregoire, after a hastily-arranged meeting Wednesday with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, took no sides but worried environmentalists when she told King5 News, "I have no personal objection whatsoever to us having coal come through our ports and exported somewhere around the world."_Gregoire said that for the present, she just wants to be sure regulatory rules are followed, and she would take no position on the Longview site.

In October, Gregoire's Commerce director, Rogers Weed, said the governor wants to "move forward" a new shipping terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, citing an opportunity to ship more Washington grain to Asia. Grain would benefit from any new shipping terminal in the state, but it is increasingly apparent that the real target is coal, primarily for Chinese power plants.

Despite the inevitable legal battles, the corporate power of coal port advocates is daunting. Although all the players have national and international reach, SSA, the company that would build and operate the Cherry Point facility, has its roots in Bellingham. In 1949, Fred R. Smith of Bellingham founded Bellingham Stevedoring, which later became Seattle Stevedoring Company and then, in 1990, Stevedoring Services of America.

SSA began efforts to develop the Cherry Point loading facility. SSA and two other affiliates make up Carrix, the world's largest marine and rail terminal operator. Smith's grandson, Jon Hemingway, is CEO of SSA, headquartered in Seattle (as is Carrix).

The Longview terminal would be operated by a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, a giant conglomerate based in Australia. The BNSF rail line is owned by Warren Buffett's Hathaway Inc., and the financial giant Goldman Sachs is playing a large role as an equity investor in Carrix. The coal is harvested by some the world's major corporations and, of course, China owns a large portion of the U.S. debt.

The market for American coal had been threatened by the closure of domestic coal plants, under fire for their carbon emissions, but the emergence of powers such as China and India has revived the coal market. Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times notes that China now burns half of the 6 billion tons of coal used globally each year and has become a major importer of coal. "As a result, not only are the pollutants that developed countries have tried to reduce finding their way into the atmosphere anyway, but ships chugging halfway around the globe are spewing still more." While American laws strictly limit burning of coal, they are less strict regarding the mining, transportation, and shipping of coal.

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Posted Sat, Jan 8, 7:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Environmentalist concerns about the US supplying coal to China (or any other country) miss a simple reality: if we don't supply it, someone else certainly will. Australia, for one, is already a dominant player in this commerce.


Posted Sat, Jan 8, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

In the not-so-distant past during a period of low snowpack and sparse rains did we not buy power from the coal fired plant that is down near Chehalis? I believe we did and that illustrates that when we need the power and all other options have evaporated we too will burn coal for electric power. We did not ration electricity, nor as I recall, did we enact anything other than token rate increases. So, I suppose my point is that the anti-export factors (in a perfectly understandable way) are practicing hypocrisy. We want the world to be better than we are at self denial.


Posted Sat, Jan 8, 9:53 a.m. Inappropriate

I've been waiting for decades for direct rail service between Seattle and Vancouver that runs at convenient times (NOT early in the morning and late in the afternoon). So construction of this coal-loading facility will endanger the forever-unrealized plans that I've been waiting for? If it obviously takes so little to scuttle and delay such plans in the first place, why should I worry about this one? I say go ahead and build the port facility.

Posted Sat, Jan 8, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

The final pararaph about the condition of our nation's railroad system are extremely misleading. If you're talking about passenger service, then, yes, it has been neglected for decades and is among the worst in the world. But in terms of freight, the U.S. is among the best, if not the best, in infrastructure.


Posted Sat, Jan 8, 7:55 p.m. Inappropriate

The previous commenter is correct. U.S. passenger rail is a joke but even the Economist magazine in a recent analysis seems to think that freight is the best in the world. So it's not the infrastructure that's bad, it's the way the owners of it choose to use it. As the U.S. prints dollars by the trillions, it's hard to imagine the rest of the world continuing to want to trade them for the two thirds of the oil we burn. Fuel could skyrocket in price anytime. Once it gets and stays expensive passenger rail will be profitable again and we'll no longer see the strange sight of passenger trains waiting for coal trains.

Longview makes far more sense than any other place for a terminal if one is built. I'm sure Warren Buffett realizes it would be much better to run his coal trains down the gradeless Columbia Gorge rather than up and over the Cascades and through the Puget Sound bottlenecks. My guess is that the Cherry Point talk is just a way to squeeze a better deal from Longview.

Pleaae allow me to register one slightly indignant objection to this otherwise interesting article: since when is coal "harvested?" The overuse of this word in recent years, with its overtones of peasant life and honest toil, seems to have been started by the timber industry, which hasn't "cut" a tree in years now. Maybe there is at least some flimsy PRspeak excuse for their use of it, but to say that strip mines "harvest" coal is right up there with "harvest" of organs from condemned Chinese prisoners. In facilities heated by Powder River coal, no less.

Posted Mon, Jan 10, 12:08 a.m. Inappropriate

The article says that Bellingham and Whatcom County officials have no formal role in the process because Cherry Point is privately owned and outside any port authority. (So I guess that means that Bellingham Parks Dept. has no say over whether mile-long coal trains will be allowed to block entrance into and exit from Boulevard Park during concerts, despite safety issues.) So what decisions by which government officials can residents of Whatcom County can try to influence? Public hearings? Where? When? And who will pay to upgrade safety where rail lines cross Whatcom County roads?


Posted Mon, Jan 10, 8 a.m. Inappropriate

As a matter of fact (that can be used to argue whichever position you prefer) some 10 million tons of coal per year are ALREADY being transported by BNSF through Bellingham (en route to China via Roberts Bank).


Posted Mon, Jan 10, 1:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Several readers have pointed out that the American freight rail system is among the best in the world. They are correct; I meant to say our passenger rail system is among the worst in the industrial world, a statement I imagine most would agree with. Certainly that is the case in our region, and if we add more coal trains—we already have about three trains a day through Bellingham en route to Roberts Point—it makes it even more difficult to improve passenger service, as I pointed out in the story. There seems to be very limited opportunity for the public to be heard on these tradeoffs; which may explain in part why the freight lines have been so successful. I agree with Snoqualman that Longview makes a lot more sense than Cherry Point; less disruption to communities all along the coast and probably less opposition from within the community itself.

Posted Mon, Jan 10, 8:45 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm sorry to be so rude sometimes, but I've followed seattle road & rail transit plans carefully, analytically and find them wanting as you know. Honestly I'm sorry, but the doubts are serious and held by MANY within the engineering community outside where your cadre of 'poor-done' builders hang out congratulating each other as if they deserve it. The DBT is CRaP, speaking for various demographics right and left. All new concrete goes the DBT shell, more new added inside. Elsewhere, recycled concrete for sidewalks or ugly bridges. Good design at the stadium roundabout riser crossing though, IMO. What will the return ship back? Vegetables? Fine linen? Mike is right - NO to DBT.


Posted Mon, Jan 10, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Again sorry to interrupt the subject with DBT notes. Consider how globalization may require a reduction of all shipping - not more exports, less imports as a reduction strategy. No brainer? The CRC is designed for increased import/export, a failure Washington shares with Oregon. Concept#1 Hayden Island Off Island Access "allows" 8+lanes or less than 10+lanes as proposed. Both DOTS are holding back on this simplification and major cost reduction. It's embarrassing. Go Mike!


Posted Wed, Jan 12, 5:02 a.m. Inappropriate

What pray tell are DBT and CRC?

Posted Thu, Jan 13, 11:18 a.m. Inappropriate

The article states that opponents have a political remedy since we Cowlitz Commissioners are elected. Commissioners get unelected often for a variety of reasons. But in spite of the great coal export debate, it was not a part of the decision to issue a shoreline development permit. The permit is in accordance with the State Shoreline Management Act. The applicant met or exceeded every aspect of the Act and corresponding County Ordinance. It wasn't politics. It was Commissioners following the rule if law. We aren't empowered to choose which companies can apply for permits. The Port of Tacoma made a decision regarding property they own. We issued a permit to a private company to develop private property. If the State wishes otherwise, the Legislature will have to pass new laws.

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