Bellingham coal project gets hard push

Millennium Bulk Logistics, the Australian company seeking to build a coal-loading terminal at Longview, withdrew its shoreline permit application Tuesday, just as pressure was building at the state’s northern end, where Gateway Pacific Terminals is pushing hard to gain local support for a large coal facility at Cherry Point north of Bellingham. In either location, coal would be shipped from Wyoming and Montana to China.

Bellingham residents, left largely in the dark while SSA Marine, the project’s operator, rounded up support from a host of local politicians, have begun to push back and a second community organization emerged Wednesday. The sustainability group ReSources had been carrying the bulk of the opposition efforts; newly emerging this week is Communitywise Bellingham, a volunteer organization dealing primarily with mitigating the effects of increased rail traffic through a city heavily impacted by rail.

“Our aim is to improve the community’s chances for mitigating or eliminating negative impacts of the proposed terminal on our quality of life, local economy, environmental health, and waterfront access,” said Jack Delay, a community activist and retired businessman who is heading the effort with his wife, Patricia Decker, a retired city planning director who later coordinated studies resulting in a comprehensive plan for the city’s waterfront. The waterfront project is bisected by Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike has added the Sumas route to his list of mitigations that should be handled if the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point is ultimately approved. Pike is also asking for new crossing gates and a “quiet zone” through the city, study of an embankment adjacent to railroad tracks that supports a residential street, and covering the coal trains that now use open hoppers.

Pike unveiled his ideas at a Monday city council meeting but did not ask for a vote. A key to his plan is that any environmental impact statement (EIS) not be limited to the terminal site but also consider community impacts. SSA Marine has been resistant to that idea. The process of determining the boundaries of the EIS, known as “scoping” is already well along.

The Longview project ran afoul of scoping issues. The Cowlitz County Commission approved a shoreline permit for a terminal but a coalition of environmental groups forced an appeal to a state shorelines board by asserting that the scope of the shorelines review should have been broader than the terminal site. That appeal is now moot, leaving uncertain whether the state would agree with the county or the environmental groups on the scope of the review. But the Longview proposal is expected to be resubmitted in a revised form. Millennium called the pause “the best way forward for both the community and the project”; an environmentalist suggested to The Daily News in Longview that it was because the company had been caught misleading the public about the size of its coal shipping plans.

The Cherry Point project is additionally complicated by a 1996 shorelines permit granted by Whatcom County to Gateway Pacific for a terminal at Cherry Point. Several groups, and the state, appealed and in 1999 signed off on a settlement with GPT. But the 1999 settlement did not even mention coal on a list of some 19 products that could be exported from the terminal. Parties to the 1999 settlement are in closed-door talks to review it, but it is unclear as to when and how public comments will be taken. The Washington Environmental Council and other groups involved in the settlement are also calling for an expanded scope of review.

Scoping decisions for Cherry Point rest with Whatcom County because the terminal would be outside the city of Bellingham; city officials and residents can raise concerns but they have no vote in permits for the terminal. At the county courthouse Tuesday (March 15), there was a flurry of activity when Councilman Tony Larson introduced a resolution that would have resulted in the county council endorsing the Gateway Pacific project. ReSources and other activists hastily recruited people to speak at the meeting, although no public hearing was scheduled. The resolution was withdrawn shortly before the meeting. A similar resolution was drafted but withdrawn several months ago by Bellingham City Council members.

Larson is not the only local politician pressing hard for the GPT project. SSA lobbyists in February rounded up signatures from legislators and small-town mayors in support of the terminal. Most cited jobs in construction and permanent operation of the terminal as their rationale. At the time, SSA was promoting the terminal as handling wheat, potash, and other bulk commodities, along with coal.

SSA later signed an agreement with coal giant Peabody Coal for 24 million metric tons annually of coal and identified coal as about 88 percent of the targeted commodities. The planned capacity of the terminal increased from 24 million tons a year to a build-out of 54 million metric tons, which also would increase the number of mile-long coal trains (loaded and empty) running through Bellingham by about 18 trains a day. BNSF is already running about six round trips daily through the city, en route to Roberts Bank south of Vancouver. Trains follow BNSF tracks from Vancouver through major Western Washington cities, including Centralia, Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, and Mount Vernon.

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