International mining giants that hope to sell more American coal to fuel the power plants and factories of China have their eyes set on Washington state ports to load the huge ships. But the link between mines and ports is over a thousand miles of railroad, and the impact of the mile-long coal trains is beginning to create pushback along the line.
That became apparent last week in Bellingham, one of the cities most impacted by any additional rail traffic — tracks run directly through some of the city's most valuable property — as public discussion of a proposed coal terminal at nearby Cherry Point turned to the impact caused by trains en route to the terminal.
At a forum sponsored by Whatcom Democrats, Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike placed a marker on the table: his administration will demand some payback for the community if it backs the proposal to build a giant commodities terminal several miles north of the city.
The construction of the proposed Gateway Pacific terminal at Cherry Point is, in Bellingham at least, really a three-way issue because of additional coal trains traffic from the new facility. Support for the creation of new family-wage jobs at the terminal is pitted against the impact of the loaded trains and, for many environmentalists, the whole idea of sending U.S. coal to be burned in China and returned here as air pollution wafted across the Pacific. The railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe , was not present at the forum, and has generally kept an exceedingly low profile as the debate opens.
Gateway Pacific Terminal would be operated by international stevedoring company SSA Marine, of which a major stockholder is Goldman Sachs. The $400 million project would create 280 fulltime, permanent jobs, the company says. Although SSA touts the project as a multi-purpose facility, which could also load grain and potash, the immediate pressure is for coal to sell to China. Coal from the Powder River Basin is shipped through British Columbia ports, but there are no coal-export facilities on the West Coast of the U.S.; Longview has also been targeted as a potential coal port.
Gateway Pacific has worked quietly and effectively to neutralize the city's substantial "green" community by lining up political support in a series of small meetings and conversations. Craig Cole —civic leader, University of Washington regent and former county councilman — was hired to work the community. Cole, a Democrat but also a businessman, has been instrumental in lining up leaders of both parties by stressing creation of family-wage jobs.
Neighborhood leaders, largely unaware of the proposal, have been slow to respond, and are only now beginning to react as plans for Cherry Point emerge. The railroad several months ago began running an estimated six trains a day (loaded and empty) through the community to Roberts Bank, the giant coal terminal south of Vancouver.
At last Thursday (Feb. 17) night's Whatcom Democrats forum, Mayor Pike presented a set of proposed "mitigations" he believes are necessary if the coal port is to gain support of the city. Pike stressed that there are significant downsides to the project that must be addressed if the project is to proceed. He said he would "demand the costs of mitigation come from those who profit directly, not our local citizens." Pike added, "Concerns about environmental justice, noise, and traffic impacts are legitimate and must be addressed. We have a long way to go and we have to be sure that whatever is done is 'done right.' "
SSA Spokesman Cole responded that Gateway Pacific will mitigate "as needed for measures related to the project," but he told Crosscut that offer would not extend to helping finance railroad improvements. He stressed that he did not speak for BNSF.
All of Pike's demands relate to the railroad, however; he said he wants to support the living-wage jobs the terminal will bring, but the overall project "may not be fully synchronized with our community values."
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