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Coal port proposal drives a big green wedge into Bellingham politics

UPDATED: Liberal/green Bellingham is pitted against a more conservative Whatcom County on the explosive issue of a giant coal port. Gov. Gregoire is being urged to step in and order the state Department of Ecology to displace Whatcom County on the environmental review.

Runs of trains loaded with coal could increase under proposals new shipping facilities in Washington and Oregon.

Runs of trains loaded with coal could increase under proposals new shipping facilities in Washington and Oregon. Paul K. Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

Politics has never been far beneath the surface of the simmering debate over building a new deep-water shipping terminal north of Bellingham to export coal to China, but an exchange of letters this week brought the community's divisions to a boil.

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike, who announced his opposition to the Gateway Pacific Terminal project a week ago, fired off a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday asking her to direct the state Department of Ecology to take over the role of lead agency for environmental studies at the Gateway Pacific site, in effect displacing Whatcom County from that role.

The county fired back an angry letter denouncing Pike's "erroneous and malicious statements," and asserting that county leaders had already asked Ecology to step into a lead position. "(M)onths ago," wrote Randall Watts, chief civil deputy prosecutor, in a letter to the governor, "Whatcom County requested Department of Ecology to join us as co-lead in the (environmental impact statement) for the Gateway Pacific Terminal Project." Later in his letter, however, he referred to "discussions" with Ecology rather than a request.

Ecology has not received a request to take a more expansive role. "In late April," said Ecology Spokesman Larry Altose, "(Whatcom) county staff informed Ecology that the county planned to submit a request to Ecology asking the department to take on a limited co-lead responsibility related to greenhouse gas analysis in the environmental impact statement [EIS]. The request would be based on our expertise in greenhouse gas issues and the statewide implications of greenhouse gases. We have not received a formal request from the county, but have continued to talk with the county about the feasibility of such an approach. The county has not asked Ecology to be co-lead on the entire EIS or to take over as lead agency. If and when such a request comes in, Ecology will evaluate it at that time."

Mayor Pike suggested to the governor that other communities in Washington be included in environmental impact studies of the terminal because of the impact of additional coal trains on those communities. An estimated 18 trains a day, both full and empty return cars and running more than a mile and a half in length, are expected to move through Washington state daily en route from the Powder River Basin coal fields to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. Currently about six trains a day —full and empty — ply the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line carrying coal to a terminal south of Vancouver, B.C. Together, the trains would total 24 daily if the terminal operated to its capacity of 48 million tons a year of coal exports.

Bringing community impacts into the environmental process would require a great deal more expertise and staff than Whatcom County has, Pike asserted, and that appears to have triggered the ire of the county. County Executive Pete Kremen, who retires this year, was angered when he learned of the mayor's letter. Despite the heated rhetoric, the city and county may not be totally alienated on the matter; Kremen has said he would support the study of impacts on Bellingham as well as at the terminal site, and Pike in his letter to the governor did not so much criticize the county as state the fact that the county is not equipped to deal with statewide issues.

Pike noted, "The interests of the state, administered by the Department of Transportation, Department of Ecology, Department of Natural Resources, the State Department of Fish and Wildlife and others, are beyond the scope of Whatcom County's authority and interests when it comes to imposing substantive mitigation. It appears the County does not have the resources, nor understandably, the expertise to conduct the comprehensive and cumulative impacts analysis necessary under (the State Environmental Policy Act) along the entire rail line corridor within the state, including impacts related to greenhouse gas emissions, health impacts from particulate emissions, effects on road maintenance, or traffic delays.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 5:36 a.m. Inappropriate

The coal terminal is a 'really big deal' for Whatcom County. Lots of construction jobs and full time employment in the area, plus ongoing taxes for a long time to come. That said, it's an even bigger deal for all the communities along the line that must deal with more frequent trains, longer ones, uncovered gondola cars, unloading, stockpiling, and loading of bulk cargo ships.
Coal creates both dust and runoff pollution into our air and streams and eventually into the Puget Sound. Trains will certainly impact cities from Seattle to Bellingham with hundreds of street crossings and mile long trains many times a day. It will impact the ability to run passenger trains along the same route in the future.
These are the issues that need a fair hearing to evaluate the costs and benefits to society - not just a new business in town or the tax pot of gold available to the county coffers.
Whatcom County has not demonstrated an ability to be that fair and honest broker of the information to make that decision. I think Mayor Pike is correct to ask the state to take a lead role, as the impact isn't just to Cherry Point. It's to millions of Washingtonian's all along the way. The state has the technical resources, expertise, and clout to make sure this is done right.
The Whatcom Co. DA protestith too much, and has made a shambles of a simple dock lease for their single ferry operation to date. They are in no position to claim expertise on anything related to marine operation.
http://crosscut.com/2011/03/15/transportation/20710/Showdown-at-Gooseberry-Point-/
The same crew that created that train wreck now squeals when questioned about their ability to guide the county through an infinitely more complex and larger deal.

007

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

A classic economic growth/environmenal tradeoff issue here. I grew up in Bellingham at a time when almost all the good jobs were industrial jobs. My father was an unskilled worker who fought for the unionization of the largest waterfront sawmill, the Bloedel Donovan mill. Bellingham had a coal mine, the world's largest fish cannery, pulp and paper mills, and (especially during WWII) manufacturing and assembly facilities. The Puget Pulp mill had twice-daily sulfur emissions which burned the chests of anyone who was outdoors. We accepted it as part of normal daily life. Few in Bellingham are aware that, beneath the entire city, there are abandoned coal-mine shafts. No one is certain what that might mean in the event of a big quake.

Western Washington College of Education, now Western Washington University, had about the same enrollment as Bellingham High School---that is, around 1,200. Now Western and Whatcom Community College, last I saw, together have between 20-25,000 students. The city has moved almost entirely to education, services, distribution, and new-economy pursuits. The idea of
long, uncovered coal trains, passing many times daily through a near-downtown area, has been jolting. Just when the old smokestack local economy appeared to be gone, it has reappeared in another form.

I live now in Seattle but share the anxiety of those in my hometown. In most instances, nationally, jobs and tax revenues have in the end trumped environmental concerns. It's hard to see how, in the end, the coal facility and coal trains will be stopped. If the facility is not built north of Bellingham, it will be argued, it will be built somewhere else and the accompanying jobs, economic growth, and tax revenues will go elsewhere. The mayor, it seems to me, is taking the right course with the issue. Bellingham itself cannot control the final decision. But it can try to see that it is made with due regard for environmental values.

The railroad and the sponsors of the coal facility will make broad, general assurances about environmental protections. Given past experience elsewhere, they will need to be specified and nailed down in binding legal agreements. State, county, and local governments must insist on them.

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 9:27 a.m. Inappropriate

For me it's not a coal issue, it's a train traffic issue. If it was 100 grain trains a day or something, does the railroad have exclusive right to the right of way at all vehicle crossings in Washington? Time is money for all the cars and trucks waiting for trains. Grade separated structures are too expensive to be built everywhere.

Bottom line, it's not the 1800s with the railroads in the empty west. There are a lot of people living here now, whose rights and needs should be given legal consideration.

If the train hits the coast at Portland, why not put it on the boat there? Going to Bellingham makes about as much sense as shipping it from San Diego. I thought barging was cheaper anyway and there is a port in Lewiston Idaho.

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

For another analysis of this issue, Jean Melious, an attorney with specialty in environmental law and a professor at Huxley College, Western Washington University, has a blog with some in-depth analysis of the city-county flap.
http://getwhatcomplanning.blogspot.com/2011/06/whatcom-county-blows-its-top.html

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

No one can seriously imagine that Whatcom County government is capable of doing an objective job of environmental review on the coal port issue. Since the 70s the premier Whatcom County official development fantasy has been that the road to easy money lies with massive industrial development adjacent to the deep waters off Cherry Point. In the late 70s/early 80s this took the form of proposals to use Cherry Point to assemble huge offshore oil rigs to be barged up to Alaska. Since this plan involved destroying a small pocket beach at Cherry Point designated under the County's shoreline program as a protected "accretion shoreform", development lawyers first tried to simply excise accreted beaches altogether from the local regulatory regime and then later to prove that the beach in question was actually something different.

In both cases the Whatcom County Council went along with the developer's ruse, and in both instances the County's decision was overruled by the State Department of Ecology pursuant to its Shoreline Management Act oversight function. Moral of the story: coal port review will ultimately land in the state's lap. It is probably more efficient to involve DOE from the outset than ask it to clean up the County's regulatory mess further down the road.

woofer

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

This is at its core an iconic conflict, between a past and players (Goldman Sachs, Peabody Coal and BNSF) that have brought us to our current circumstance and courageous communities willing to stand up, refuse the impact, and opt for a more sustainable future. Both the jobs and tax benefits arguments are more than counter-balanced by the property value losses, human health impacts, business/economic interruption, enabling public investment required, and quality of life impacts. Throw in the facts that it is a dicey economic endeavor considering China's role in global coal markets, the folly of selling cheap energy to a competing economy, questions of compromised energy security, and the climate change/ocean acidification implications of another hundred million metric tons of CO2 in our already stressed atmosphere and it is hard to find the wisdom of this. In any case, the concept of Whatcom County--fine as it is--having an ultimate say on a project that impacts people and places from Spokane to Bellingham and back again makes little sense. Particularly when you look at the amount of money that project proponents and their representatives have pumped into advertising, lobbying, political contributions, and elbow twisting. The project's scope and breadth of impacts should logically determine lead agencies.

bobferris

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting as this controversy may be to sociologists or journalists, it is just another example of the ultimate American Big Lie: the ongoing illusion of democratic process by which the Ruling Class deceives the gullible – that is, most of us – into believing we have some control over the circumstances of our lives.

Having spent about half my boyhood and most of the earliest years of my journalism career in Appalachia – where coal is not just king but tyrant – I recognize the politics of this matter all too well. The coal companies have absolute power: whatever they want they get, whether by payoffs, thuggery or some combination of both. Thus the irremediably post-apocalyptic conditions in so much of West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee: no matter how diligently the people might work to preserve their environments – and contrary to certain nastily smug bigots, Appalachian folk fight damn hard for the mountains they love – the coal operators always win.

The Evergreen State coal port and its environmentally ruinous increase in Big Business toxicity (locomotive exhaust, coal dust, the maximum-filth emissions of idling automotive engines in the colossal traffic jams inflicted by the hourly passage of mile-long trains) – all this was irrevocably imposed on us long before it was publicly announced. The Ruling Class had met in some walnut-paneled sanctuary of greed to decree Washington state would be despoiled from Spokane west to Vancouver and thence north to Bellingham. It was, as always, entirely about profit: the public be damned. We the victims might be allowed a few years of pro forma tantrums – protests doomed before conception – but there was never any doubt the port would be built.

As to Bellingham's unexpressed but obvious hope intervention by state officials might provide some environmental sanity to ameliorate an environmentally insane decision, it seems Mayor Dan Pike is unaware of the accolade President Obama recently paid Gov. Gregoire, applauding her as “a fierce advocate for American businesses.” That obviously answers the question posed not just by the mayor but by an old-time anthem of the coal-field unions, a song aptly titled “Which Side Are You On?”

While I can't blame Mr. Pike for his naivety – reports of the Obama/Gregoire quote were limited mostly to the labor press, and Bellingham's so-called “Leftists” (never mind their allegedly “progressive” views) tend to be as venomously anti-union as any Ku Klux Klanner – the mayor's apparent optimism is nevertheless quite moving. Somehow it reminds me of boyhood conversations I had with barefoot urchins, hard-eyed boys and stark-faced girls compelled to gather spilled lumps of winter coal along the Louisville-Nashville tracks to provide their mothers sufficient fuel to cook their suppers and perhaps breakfasts too, the every-afternoon going-home-from-school chore of begrimed and ragged children who yet dared imagine Santa Claus might bring joy to the weathered clapboard shacks in which they and their families dwelt. Indeed Mayor Pike's cause is no less hopeless: from Barack the Betrayer to Christine the Cruel, the Democrats are dropping all pretense of being anything but Republicans in disguise – final proof the coal port will be rammed down our throats here just as union-busting and strip-mining was jammed down the throats of Appalachians.

It cannot be said too often that such is merely capitalist governance: absolute power and unlimited profit for the Ruling Class, total subjugation, genocidal poverty and environmental ruin for all the rest of us.


Posted Fri, Jun 17, 3:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, it's not a done deal yet. Just like going to Airbus for a tanker, everything about this deal defies common sense.

Burning coal, apparently bad since they are crowing about shutting down Washington's only plant. Giving coal to China to burn with even less polution control, which is air we will end up breathing once it blows across the Pacific.

Increasing train traffic in the most congested part of Washington. WSDOT has how many roads impacted by trains? Not to mention there is a huge impact on the Mukilteo and Edmonds ferries which will often be blocked by trains.

Last, there is a lot of high priced real estate between Ballard and Everett. Coal dust and blaring train horns all night may not go uncontested.

Posted Sat, Jun 18, 12:13 a.m. Inappropriate

David Roberts of Seattle based Grist.org wrote a blog piece recently where he contrasted the political styles of the Tea Party Right with those of Environmental community.

The Tea Party (and their handlers) are more than willing to launch primary challenges against Republicans who fail to align themselves with the conservative right. They are more than willing to lose an occasional general election if that means the majority of Republican candidates toe the line with the Right's policies.

Robert's argues that the Environmental Community has been too soft on their supposed political allies. They are willing to accept defeat and excuses from those they support and then turn around and send them back to Washington again and again. It is Robert's opinion that if the Environmental Movement is to be taken seriously then it must take-out supposed allies who don't obtain results.

As we've seen time and time again with McConnell and the other Republican Senators, policies that have overwhelming popular support can be derailed and postponed by any individual Senator. Judges aren't given hearings. Nobel Laureates are denied positions because they are "unqualified". So why aren't Washington States' senators engaged in this debate?

Washington State has two experienced Senators. Washington's junior senator Maria Cantwell is a supposed "climate hawk" who sponsored with Susan Collins the CLEAR ACT, an alternative to the Cap and Trade bill on carbon trading. Our senior senator Patty Murray is in the Democratic leadership. Either one of these senators could effectively put a halt to any ideas of building a coal export facility. Goldman-Sachs--the minority owner of SSA Marine, Peabody Coal, and BSNF--with significant ownership by Warren Buffett--have financial interests much larger than a coal export terminal that senators have influence over.

The power that we give our Senators should be used to oppose this expansion. And if our senators do not take action, perhaps it is time for the Environmental community to take out own of their own. Patty Murray won her election against Dino Rossi by 4-percentage points. In a state that is in-play every election, only four voters out of one hundred can determine whether one wins or loses. What would happen if the Environmental Community stayed home next time? And don't forget Maria Cantwell won her first election against incumbent Slade Gorton by the slimmest of margins.

To those who value democracy, a battle for its future is being waged in Bellingham. On one hand, we have large outside corporate interests which epitomize everything that is going wrong in the US where the divide between rich and poor grow every year and our congressman can be bought through election donations or beaten into submission through externally financed media onslaught. If you don't think this is what is happening in Bellingham, just ask those in the know who has hired the local communications and messaging consulting firms.

Dave Roberts, "Nothing will change until greens mount some primary challenges" Grist.org:
http://www.grist.org/article/2011-04-08-nothing-will-change-until-greens-mount-primary-challenges

Posted Sat, Jun 18, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

The state really ought to be looking at the trade-off between about 300 jobs in Whatcom County and the potential to wreck the economic futures of all of the state's urbanized job centers downstream.

A train each hour - 24 long slow coal trains each hour - in addition to the other rail traffic - may be way to much.

The state needs to consider these proposals with a focus on overall competitiveness and a big picture. It would be really stupid to lose the next stage 737 manufacturing work because these trains.

Jan

Posted Sun, Jun 19, 7:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Its actually coal industry propaganda to characterize this as jobs versus the economy.
The downtown Bellingham waterfront, largely the old GP plant, has the capacity, if properly developed by the City and Port, to create FAR more jobs than the 200 odd jobs up in the county- but it sure wont happen if there is a train continuously cutting the city off from its own waterfront, and 20-30 trains a day will certainly do that.

Bellingham has the opportunity, with all its undeveloped waterfront, to do all kinds of things- education, business, recreation, and residential- but none of them can happen if the moving wall of coal hopper cars keeps everyone from that prime real estate. All of those potential jobs would be a lot greener than the coal port jobs. And, frankly, many would pay just as well. Western is trying to put some additional campus space down there, which certainly has a lower environmental footprint than a coal port does.

Thats not even getting into the very ideal of us becoming a raw material exporting country for the Chinese...

Rniemi

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