It's called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), but as opposing sides in the debate over locating a huge coal-export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham are preparing to enter the first stage of developing an EIS, it is increasingly apparent that the most contentious topics may not be the traditional assessments of flora and fauna.
Critics of the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) are lining up arguments that center on economic issues and quality-of-life impacts of an additional 18 coal trains a day on communities throughout the state, and even the global significance of helping Asia pour more pollution into the air from coal-burning plants.
Terminal backers hope to keep the scope of environmental review within the 1,000-acre project site and a short rail spur. That appears increasingly difficult, as the terminal picks up opposition well beyond its location in the nation's furthermost northwest corner.
Backers of the terminal — SSA Marine, the international marine-terminal operator based in Seattle, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), Peabody Coal, the nation's largest coal miner and prime customer for GPT, and Goldman Sachs, which owns 49 percent of SSA Marine's holding company — stress jobs and tax largess from the terminal's construction and operation. A corps of canvassers, hired by GPT, has been going door-to-door in Whatcom County for several weeks, promoting the project.
In Bellingham on Tuesday, a national financial consultancy unveiled a counter side of the jobs issue: Largely because of increased rail traffic, the export terminal could wind up costing Whatcom County (and by extension other communities impacted by rail traffic) more in lost economic opportunities than would be gained by the new terminal's jobs.
"To the extent that GPT's construction and operation could put other projected or planned growth at risk, it is possible that even if all of the projected employment benefits of GPT were achieved, it could still have a net negative employment impact on Whatcom County's economy,"concluded David Eichenthal of Public Financial Management Inc. (PFM), headquartered in Philadelphia and specializing in "sound independent financial advice to state and local governments."
PFM cited a high risk of loss of jobs at the proposed new downtown waterfront Bellingham is planning, a 216-acre site of a former pulp mill, bisected by BNSF tracks. The site is largely cleared and waiting for approval of plans by the city and Port of Bellingham. The study also cited a potential loss of tourism jobs and a decline in the in-migration of "skilled workers and entrepreneurs" to a community that advertises livability and a green image. The "stigma" of mile-and-a-half-long coal trains is a real liability as the city tries to hold its attraction for visitors and incomers, the report noted.
These concerns are not new in Bellingham, but the PFM report creates a legitimacy to rival two economic studies commissioned by SSA Marine, which tout a permanent workforce of 294 direct and 573 indirect jobs when the terminal reaches capacity, along with thousands of temporary construction jobs. PFM spread the job-creation figures out over a 10-year span and said that in 2015-2024 the terminal would create — using SSA's figures — up to 14,110 "job years," while Whatcom County without the terminal would create — using state economic figures — up to 107,597 job years. If the presence of added coal trains and other impacts of the terminal caused as little as a 13 percent loss of jobs during that period, the new project would be a net economic loss for the county, the study stated.
Most of these figures, on both sides of the coin, are of necessity conjectural, depending upon economic trends as well as local conditions, but the PFM report gives structure to an argument that has been obscured by the pressure for family-wage jobs in Whatcom County. The county has a strong history of job creation, but wages run well below the state average; some of this is due to the large student population at Western Washington University, which feeds a ready demand for part-time service jobs. The terminal would utilize union longshoremen, at a stated annual salary over $90,000, but some of the jobs created would not be local, merchant marine and railroad jobs in particular.
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