Paul Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy
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.
The PFM group tied an economic cost to an issue that has motivated citizens in other Washington communities: regional livability and environmental concern. Coal does not fit that picture for many folks, and Washington's last coal-fired power plant is being phased out. Many of Washington's westside cities are bisected by BNSF tracks already carrying heavy traffic, including about six coal trains a day to and from Vancouver, B.C. In Edmonds and Marysville, grade-level crossings separate auto traffic from vital services. The cost of overpasses or upgraded crossing guards would be in the millions, stressing budgets of small communities.
"Quiet zones" have been implemented in a few communities impacted by heavy train traffic; essentially they involve overpasses or heavily-secured crossing gates to make track-crossing difficult. PFM observed, "Quiet zones would require capital investments — gates and signage — and maintenance. A 2007 report evaluated the creation of two quiet zones in Bellingham — the Fairhaven zone (5 grade crossings) had a projected capital cost of $1.3 to $2 million. A waterfront zone (7 grade crossings) had a projected capital cost of $1.4 to $3.5 million. At the time, there was also a projected annual maintenance cost of $5,500 per crossing, per year." A similar project in Pomona, Calif., in 2007 cost $3.7 million for five crossings.
Local governments could attempt to load those costs onto the terminal sponsors, which have not shown any interest in assuming the burden. To cover impacts on communities along the rail line, agencies leading the environmental review — Whatcom County and the State Department of Ecology — would need to expand the scope of review outside the Whatcom County line, as opponents are advocating. County and state officials have indicated a desire to include state and regional issues in the EIS.
The scope of review is critical to these requests, and a scoping process may begin as early as next month, if SSA Marine files its second set of formal applications as expected before March 19.
It is those scoping hearings that will determine the breadth of environmental review. It is a given that fish and wildlife, wetlands, shipping, and air pollution will be studied; the list of items that can be included is long, and includes both natural and built environment. It is in the latter category that rail transportation can find a slot. The question is how far from the GPT site the environmental review will expand.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, in a January letter to Gov. Christine Gregoire, is among local government executives calling for a broad environmental review, including economic factors as well as a host of livability elements. Similar concerns have been voiced by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and mayors and councils of smaller cities and counties.
Gibson Traffic Consultants last year conducted railroad studies in Burlington, Stanwood, Mount Vernon, and Marysville and is doing one of three transportation studies commissioned by Communitywise Bellingham, which sponsored the PFM study.
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