Nearly 90 percent of its proposed bulk-cargo terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham is designed for open-storage cargo (coal). But for four hours last Thursday (May 19), SSA Marine held forth on the virtues of using the giant export terminal to ship grain and other agriculture products.
With the focus in nearby Bellingham rapidly solidifying on the impacts of coal and the massive trains bringing it from the Powder River Basin for trans-shipment to China, it was a chance for SSA to talk about the smaller twin in its family.
Agriculture representatives from regional and national organizations seemed supportive of another option to ship product to Asia, but it was clear from their presentations that most of any added export moving through the prospective Gateway Pacific port would come from east of Washington's borders. The state is already a major exporter of agriculture products, but its largest export — wheat — is not among the crops expected to experience a marketing boom in Asia, because neither China nor India is a wheat importer.
At a marketing discussion, SSA executives made a strong pitch to about a dozen agricultural leaders to support the port proposal, and asked for ideas on how to design the project to handle their crops. But Bob Watters, director of business development for SSA, said no agreements have been signed or are being negotiated as was recently announced with Peabody Coal for up to 24 million tons of Power River coal for shipment to China.
Finding an operator for a grain terminal at Cherry Point may not be an easy task, as ports on the Columbia have been expanding to take advantage of a deeper river channel that opened this year; at Longview, a new grain terminal is the first built in the U.S. in 25 years, and some exporters believe the region has capacity beyond demand. That would be in contrast to coal terminals; there are none at U.S. ports on the Pacific Coast and the demand for coal in China has skyrocketed in the past two years.
Gateway Pacific will be designed for enclosed containers (elevators, tanks, etc.) to ship up to 6 million tons of commodities annually of products such as wheat, soybeans, and corn; this compares with 48 million tons of open storage (expected to be coal) when the terminal is fully operating.
It is coal, with its resultant trains of a mile and a half in length of open cars, that has caused the most concern in Bellingham, where railroad tracks bisect some of the city's most coveted property. Because the project is not inside Bellingham — it's 14 miles to the north — SSA has maintained that is not responsible to deal with the impacts of the estimated 18 trains a day (full and empty) the coal terminal will bring. Opponents are hoping to influence environmental studies of the project to include community impact.
But that was not part of the conversation with a friendly audience Thursday; the terms "coal" and "trains" were not used in the same sentence. Burlington Northern Santa Fe representatives talked marketing with peers in the agriculture sector.
The only concern raised was placing agricultural products and open storage of coal on the same site, but Watters said the different commodities would use separate loading equipment and would have covers. Later, U.S. Grain Council trade policy director Floyd Gaibler said he was satisfied there would be no problem.
Gaibler and representatives of inland growers see trade with Asia continuing to grow and there was much emphasis on China's growing middle class, increasingly urban and increasingly looking to American food products. Pacific Northwest ports account for 25 percent of U.S. grain shipments, with most going to Asia. But of the major export commodities — wheat, corn, soybeans and DDGS (animal feed) — wheat and soybeans have been flat for three decades and are not expected to make major gains.
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