Long before it became a university town and retirement mecca, Bellingham was a coal town. For about a hundred years they mined coal in a place known today by its parks, art, and music and its repeated appearances on meaningless “best places” lists in frothy magazines.
Critics of a huge shipping port, proposed for the Whatcom County shore a few miles north of Bellingham, worry that the city is headed back to its coal-town days. Not by mining this time, but by trainload after open trainload of coal from Montana and Wyoming, rolling through Bellingham around the clock, destined for China.
SSA Marine, one of the two or three largest seaport builders and operators in the world, filed permit applications on Monday (Feb. 28) to build a huge bulk-commodity shipping port at Cherry Point, on a spectacularly verdant and scenic coast a few miles north of Bellingham. The dimensions of the port, called Gateway Pacific Terminal, are astounding:
- Capacity for shipping 48 million tons of coal per year, along with another 8 million tons of “closed storage” commodities such as wheat and potash.
- A rail system to accommodate 125-car coal trains, expanding to 150-car trains over time.
- A wharf 2980 feet long, to berth three “cape-size” vessels, the largest class of general freighters afloat, displacing up to 250,000 tons.
- A conveyor system to move coal 1,250 feet, from landside storage areas directly to the holds of the ships.
- An industrial site of 1,100 acres, of which, the company promises, nearly half will remain permanently natural.
If it succeeds, SSA will have a port nearly twice the size of Westshore Terminals at Vancouver, B.C., currently the largest dry bulk facility on the West Coast of North and South America; coal-dust pollution has created citizen unrest for miles downwind. In addition, a rival port builder from Australia hopes to create an 80 million-ton terminal at Longview.
SSA’s filing followed an announcement by the nation's largest coal producer, Peabody Energy, that it will partner with SSA to export at least 24 million tons of coal annually for the life of the Cherry Point terminal. This is coal originating in the Powder River Basin of the upper plains and hauled to Cherry Point by Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
Not only does SSA have its coal supplier at hand, the company has lined up impressive support in and out of government. Gov. Gregoire “wants to move the project forward," state Commerce Director Rogers Weed told reporters at a Cherry Point gathering last October. He said that the governor “hopes to achieve big increases in exports of Washington grain,” and the Gateway terminal would mean a big boost in port capacity. The Bellingham Herald account also said Gregoire had asked her state agency heads to streamline the regulatory process to help the project along. (The month before Weeds's statement, the governor made a stop in Vietnam, where she helped to celebrate a huge SSA terminal.)
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, who represents Whatcom County in Congress, has endorsed the project. “Exports are a sure fire way to get our economy moving,” he said. Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike offered a qualified endorsement. He likes it, but only if the impacts — including increased train traffic though the city — are controlled without local taxpayers footing the bill.
The Bellingham Herald took a somewhat belligerent stand in favor of the project, accusing those it calls “the anti-development community” of “grandstanding and a penchant for filing law suits.”
Whatcom County Labor Council head Dave Warren came to Monday’s news conference to tout the new port as the biggest of big deals in a region where living-wage industrial jobs are sighted about as commonly as the 7-foot Diatryma bird whose fossil foot print is displayed at Bellingham’s Western Washington University.
“This is going to be a 100 percent union project that uses local labor: an opportunity for living-wage jobs that is extraordinary in our community,” Warren said.
SSA says the initial construction work could generate the equivalent of 3,500 direct jobs, with another 4,800 trickle-down jobs developed through “service purchases and employee spending.” Long-term, the company cites preliminary estimates of 430 well-paid union jobs, primarily among longshoremen.
Before it can begin building, SSA needs approval of federal and state environmental agencies. They’ll conduct studies and public hearings on the environmental impact of the giant project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead agency for studying impacts regulated by the federal government. Whatcom County will lead the State Environmental Protection Act process. SSA Vice President Bob Watters says the company expects to complete the impact statements, meet environmental requirements, and have its permits by December of next year; the terminal would be ready to ship coal by 2015.
A non-profit environmental education organization known as RE Sources for Sustainable Communities has emerged as the leading questioner of economic and environmental pronouncements relating to the terminal. On the day following the port builder’s announcement, RE Sources Executive Director Bob Ferris and Project Manager Matt Krogh took aim at SSA’s expectations.
The partnership with Peabody is “a little like someone picking out china patterns before the end of the first date,” Ferris said in a Tuesday news release. “SSA will find that this is not speed dating, and that Bellingham and Whatcom County hold their own virtue in high regard.”
“This is like a tale of two Bellinghams,” Krogh said, “one reaching for a sustainable, clean future, the other clawing its way to the past.”
Ferris pointed to problems at Vancouver’s Westshore Terminal, where fine dust from stored coal “has depleted oxygen in nearshore habitats and coated boats more than five miles to the southeast, in Point Roberts.”
SSA’s Bob Watters acknowledges the dust problems at Westshore, but says wind patterns are different at Cherry Point. “Westshore stores its coal right at the water,” he told Crosscut. “We’ll be storing on land, with acres and acres of trees to buffer the wind.”
There’s at least one delicate environmental issue at Cherry Point that the Canadian coal shippers don’t have to deal with: a threatened and carefully stewarded herring population, fish that Washington state agencies have been trying to protect for at least 20 years. The herring is critical food for the endangered spring Chinook salmon, which in turn is prime food for Puget Sound orcas. Concerns over the herring’s dwindling population contributed to blocking a succession of proposed industrial schemes at the same Cherry Point site, in the 1980s and 1990s.
Herring protection, along with concerns for Dungeness crab and migrating salmon, led to years of difficult negotiations between representatives of SSA, state fish and wildlife officials, and environmental organizations. They fought over the size, design, and positioning of the half-mile long wharf SSA plans to build. In a settlement agreed to 11 years ago, SSA agreed to construct the pier in such a way as to minimize damage to eelgrass beds, which provide essential hatching and rearing habitat for the herring. It may be repositioned again before Fish and Wildlife biologists will approve it.
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