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    Coal port advocates narrow the range of environmental impacts

    Gateway Pacific Terminals, the entity behind Bellingham's proposed Cherry Point coal port, is moving ahead with permitting but dodging opponents pushing for an environmental review covering a wider geography. Another battle heats up over economic impacts and displaced jobs.

    A coal train runs through a Bellingham waterfront slated for economic re-development.

    A coal train runs through a Bellingham waterfront slated for economic re-development. Paul Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

    The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

    The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal Courtesy of Gateway Pacific Terminal

    Gateway Pacific Terminals filed several hundred pages of documents late Monday with Whatcom County planners, setting in motion the formal processes that could result in the nation's largest coal-exporting terminal on a 1,200-acre deepwater site at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.

    SSA Marine of Seattle, the developer of the proposed terminal, which would be capable of exporting up to 54 million tons of coal and other commodities at full buildout, had its applications rejected by the county nine months ago. This week's filing was the result of months of working with county, state, and federal agencies to design documents that will pass muster. If they are accepted, a process known as scoping will begin next month to determine the extent of the environmental review of the project

    Some 23 separate permits and authorizations must be obtained from at least nine local, state, and federal agencies before construction can begin on the projet. Though SSA Marine hopes to begin operating in 2016, critics predict a longer time frame. Whatcom County plans to post the entire set of documents online. In the meantime, the Bellingham Herald has posted a link to the operative document.

    The documents filed Monday make it clear that Gateway Pacific wants to avoid environmental studies away from its Cherry Point site. Discussions of transportation issues do not include railroad traffic away from the immediate site with its short spur line to serve the terminal, or the impact of adding nearly a thousand massive ships to the shipping lanes of the San Juan Islands.

    The Cherry Point terminal is particularly sought-after because of its 80-foot channel, which requires no dredging and can handle shipping's massive Capesize ships, so large they cannot pass through the Panama Canal. About a third of the coal ships expected would be Capesize, the document projects; the others would be Panamax, somewhat smaller vessels.

    The new ships would enter either through Haro or Rosario straits, which already carries heavy traffic from Vancover container and coal ports, as well as crude-oil tankers serving refineries at Cherry Point and Anacortes. More ships would be needed to service proposed oil-export ports at northern British Columbia ports. Coal ships are not under the same strict regulations that govern oil tankers.

    The impacts of this and other expected transportation burdens have fired opposition in communities in the islands and along the long rail route through Washington state. A rally was scheduled Tuesday night in Bellingham by Power Past Coal, a joint venture of several opposition groups and headed by the Sierra Club, Climate Solutions, and ReSources, a Bellingham-based sustainability organization.

    The nine months since SSA's original documents were rejected have seen a buildup of political action by both sides. The issue pits SSA Marine's claims of jobs and tax revenues against potential job losses, global concerns over climate change from coal-burning, community impact from a major increase in rail and shipping traffic, and health concerns related to coal dust and diesel fumes.

    For its part, SSA has hired canvassers to go door-to-door in Whatcom County promoting the benefits of the terminal. The company has also produced a new promotional video featuring supporters of the terminal. In both cases the emphasis is on jobs.

    Monday's filing provided a breakdown of prospective jobs created by the project. The terminal itself would only directly employ 89 workers on-site in 2016 and 213 upon full buildout in 2026; most would be longshoremen. The report claims that associated jobs created by the project (including 44 staff jobs and 173 workers in rail and marine jobs) would boost the total to 430, although most of the rail and marine jobs would not be local hires.

    The company also outlined 2,100 jobs it expects to create in temporary construction to build the terminal, and indirect gains in jobs in local businesses. Jobs and tax revenues, mostly going to the state, have been the major selling point for the terminal.

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    Posted Wed, Mar 21, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    What is it about the Cherry Point industries? When BP, owner of the third largest refinery on the west coast, wanted to double the capacity of their refinery dock they did not even think they needed to do an Environmental impact State (EIS) at all. As a result of a lawsuit they now have to not only do an EIS, but that EIS needs to consider the increased risk of an oil spill from Cape Flattery, to Canada. That study has been complete for 3 years but still has not seen the light of day. Now SSA wants to claim they can do an EIS for the largest coal dock in North America and not even consider the impacts of bringing coal carriers twice the size of tankers allowed in Puget Sound. These ships carry 2 million gallons of bunker fuel and are not required to have tug escorts as tankers do. By trying to hide from this obvious new threat to the Sound, and failing to complete the studies they did agree to do, SSA has shown themselves to be untrustworthy of constructing and operating such a huge facility in such a vulnerable location.

    Posted Wed, Mar 21, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    I have heard that there are serious concerns about the capacity of the rail lines extending from Bellingham down to the Columbia River to handle the proposed increase in traffic associated with these coal trains. How is that being considered? Also, everyone should be aware that all of these trains would pass through downtown Seattle, including right along the waterfront north of the tunnel under downtown and then out by Golden Gardens Park.


    Posted Wed, Mar 21, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    I live near the train tracks at Richmond Beach just south of Edmonds and see many coal trains passing now during the day. Do you know how many a day are currently heading north through Richmond Beach/Edmonds? Where are they headed?

    I'm trying to get a feel for what 18 more trains a day would really mean.

    Also, I rarely see empty cars going south. Do they take another route or possibly go through at night? Or perhaps the coal in them stays in the cars for delivery to its end destination?

    So the coal at the new terminal will be dumped from the cars into the big Capesize or Panamax ships? I have the idea that most of the cargo in the rail cars currently is simply delivered to the site where it will be distributed in the same train car (not dumped out and placed in another type of carrier).

    Thanks. Tracy Tallman


    Posted Wed, Mar 21, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

    If I understand correctly, it is expected up to 9 full trains and 9 empty trains would be added per day, at potential maximum full buildout some years down the road correct? But will potential maximum buildout ever occur, especially as more coal ports are developed elsewhere in Canada, US, Australia, etc.?

    I would presume at least half or more of the trains could use the Stevens Pass route, bypassing downtown Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma. Correct?

    The current coal trains on the line run to Roberts Bank near Vancouver. It's possible that some of that traffic could be diverted to Canadian rail lines.

    Coal will continue to be shipped and used, regardless of the outcome here. Period. I'd rather it be unusually relatively cleaner burning coal like that from Wyoming than the more polluting dirtier coal more commonly found throughout the world.


    Posted Wed, Mar 21, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    Trying to narrow the scope of environmental review is a very short-sighted approach for the Cherry Point coal port proponents to take. If they succeed, they merely set themselves up to be reversed when judicial review of the permits occurs at the end of the administrative process. By that time they will have spent tens of thousands of dollars in technical studies and lawyers' and consultants' fees in negotiating the Whatcom County regulatory (and political) maze.

    This is precisely what happened last year down in Longview. Coal proponents there steamrolled their permit approvals through a compliant county review process based on a narrow scoping of environmental review. Then when the permits were appealed to the state Shorelines Hearings Board, it became clear to everyone that the narrow scoping was legally indefensible under SEPA. Rather than enduring an adverse outcome at the SHB level, the proponents voluntarily went back to the very beginning the permit process to redo their environmental studies.

    Whatcom County is a lovely and charming place but there must be something in the water that causes brain damage. Maybe issuing county permits in the 90s to dump Everett's toxic sewage sludge on North County pastures has so hopelessly compromised the aquifer system that pervasive health effects are now beginning to manifest. If coal port proponents succeed in unduly narrowing the scope of environmental review, they will have foolishly handed their opponents an ultimate judicial victory in a manner that will track the Longview debacle almost step for step. (Tip to opponents: keep an eye out for surreptitious attempts in the State Legislature to gut SEPA.)


    Posted Wed, Mar 21, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

    The courts find for the defendants in such cases when the issues are narrowed down to techincalities where they can always win. The thing to do is to keep the focus broad on COMMUNITY RIGHTS AND PROTECTION. This means looking at what Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (www.celdf.org) has done in drafting community bills of rights to keep companies like this from befouling their communities. We need to be able to represent the environment as a WHOLE, including the quality of our life in the area affected and beyond. Hell, represent the whole watershed and everything in it.

    Keeping it to SEPA and NEPA is also too narrow. We have to step outside the boundaries of the playing field that have been so narrowly proscribed by the courts and legal system whose job it is to defend the capitalist system the way it is. We can't play by their rules anymore. We have to make our own.

    What is at stake is water, land, air and social quality of life. If Pittsburg can take on fracking companies and stop them in their tracks, Bellingham can do the same.


    Posted Wed, Mar 21, 11:12 a.m. Inappropriate

    Too late for this story, but at last night's pre-scoping session in Bellingham (which drew 800 people), the lead planner for Whatcom County indicated that health questions will be studied as part of the process. A good summary is from John Stark at the Bellingham Herald, accessed at:
    As in some of the other areas, the question of boundaries will emerge: health studies just at the Gateway Pacific site or health studies all along the railroad line? Some have suggested that the long trains using Seattle's tunnel may raise issues of this nature, and others point to rail sidings where trains idle for a long period of time.

    Posted Wed, Mar 21, 2:10 p.m. Inappropriate

    SSA's only hope for avoiding environmental review of the all the impacts is to get SEPA gutted by the legislature. There is usually an attempt at this every year already, typically masquerading as "regulatory reform," though "economic development" is the current anti-environment (or anti-life, as I prefer) smokescreen.

    Remember, this is all about margins. The more corners SSA can cut, the more costs they can shift to the public (i.e. environmental, health, and transportation system degradation), the greater their profits. For example, how much does it cost someone to spend another half-hour a day waiting at a train crossing? How much is their time worth? Now, multiply by 365 days a year, then multiply by tens of thousands of people. How about when the delays are of goods and materials needed in retail sales or manufacturing? This is an avoided cost for SSA. In other words, the people who get stuck in coal train traffic and the other people who are affected by that are unwillingly working to make SSA money, but SSA is not paying them. This also holds for health impacts of breathing coal dust the full length of the rail line. Or, as is predictable, losing the Cherry Point Herring stock.

    In short, there's an easy way to determine whether the economic benefits of this outweigh the environmental, health, and transportation damage the export system (not just the terminal itself) will cause. Just internalize all the costs. Make SSA and its corporate buddies pay for all the impacts. Cash on the line. With a nice really really big insurance policy for when one of the big coal ships has a little oops with an oil tanker. I'm willing to bet that we'd then see that there is less profit then cost. The real issue here is who gets the profit and who pays the cost.

    PS: The coal trains will go come through the Columbia Gorge, because they are really heavy and climbing up Stevens Pass greatly increases the transportation costs. Its all about the margin, remember?

    Steve E.

    Posted Wed, Mar 21, 2:18 p.m. Inappropriate

    One other thing. When someone says something like:

    "Coal will continue to be shipped and used, regardless of the outcome here. Period. I'd rather it be unusually relatively cleaner burning coal like that from Wyoming than the more polluting dirtier coal more commonly found throughout the world."

    they're ignoring elementary economics. If SSA has to actually pay for its pollution and other impacts, then the cost of its product (coal) must be increased. Or more expensive coal from elsewhere MAY be used. Unless the most basic underpinning of modern economics is all wrong, less of it will then be purchased and burned. And/or alternatives (efficiency, conservation, alternative energy sources) will be substituted.

    Making SSA pay fair market value for all of the impacts, degradation, and damage it inflicts is simply making the market behave more rationally and efficiently. Isn't that what conservatives want?

    Steve E.

    Posted Thu, Mar 22, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks again, Floyd, for your continuing coverage of this issue.

    Instructive examples lie in similar battles in other places. For instance, my life partner, who lives in Prescott, Arizona, organized a five-year, ultimately successful battle against Phelps Dodge when it wanted to site an open-pit copper mine quite close to Prescott. Both Prescott and Arizona are far more conservative politically than Bellingham or Washington state. Phelps Dodge's selling point, of course, was jobs and more jobs---with estimates which seemed wholly unrealistic. Opponents of the copper mine utilized an "all-of-the-above" strategy, fighting legally, in the media, at grassroots political level, through environmental organizations, and by raising the visibity of the issue to national level. Well known environmental and consumer leaders came to Prescott to join the anti-mine campaign. Leading state and local elected officials, many of whom supported the mine, were frightened by the public opposition and muted their support. They were neutralized.

    The 800-person turnout at an initial informational meeting in Bellingham
    should give us some idea of the potential opposition which can be mobilized there. Officeholders and even regulators read such signs.

    You can be sure that, in the end, the job estimates will turn out to be inflated and the environmental hazards minimized by the project sponsors.
    Jobs can be created from many economic activities, in any case, which are not such an obvious threat to the regional environment. This is a fight worth making.

    Posted Thu, Mar 22, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    Big Coal - SSA - Patty Murray

    This is the person I voted for several times to protect Washington State.
    If she is silent and does not oppose this bad idea that will be her legacy.
    Another moral compass with some type of magnetic disturbance.

    Posted Thu, Mar 22, 11:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    "a candidate for Bellingham City Council was elected"

    Please name names.


    Posted Thu, Mar 22, 3:57 p.m. Inappropriate

    One of the commenters above raised the issue of the coal trains going over the Stevens Pass route instead of coming north from the Columbia River and through Seattle on their way to Bellingham. I don't think that's going to happen because I've heard the Stevens Pass route is already operating over capacity.


    Posted Sat, Mar 24, 12:01 a.m. Inappropriate

    As for coal exports, the coal folks are good at playing one port off against another, so they are now also proposing a coal export facility for Grays Harbor. At a NW Port Association meeting years ago, Hank Soike, Grays Harbor Port Manager was going on and on about all the hoops the Port had to jump through to get anything done. Someone finally got up and said, "Hank, it doesn't matter what you do. You'll always have the shallowest deepwater port on the coast!"

    It was thanks to our "friend" President Carter who announced a National Energy Plan in 1977 to vastly increase the use of coal to replace oil and natural gas.

    See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1638114/pdf/envhper00478-0127.pdf

    Not sure if Carter anticipated that much of the nation's coal would actually be proposed for export, but back in the 1980s the same coal export issue came up. the UW Institute for Environmental Studies put together a West Coast Coal Export Conference through the UW-IES in June of 1982. See: Symposium on coal ports and environmental considerations, Seattle, WA, USA, 4 Jun 1982. The 1982 Coal Export proceedings should be available through the UW.

    See: http://www.osti.gov/energycitations/product.biblio.jsp?osti_id=5291121

    In the 1980s, all the same ports were clamoring to become the coal export king of the West Coast. The Port of Longview had a "leg" up because Sen. Magnuson had given the Corps of Engineers hundreds of millions of dollars to dredge the Columbia, Cowlitz and Toutle Rivers after the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruptions (resulting in the filling of nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands without mitigation) and suddenly the Port of Longview found itself with a batch of new developable land, which seemed just the thing for coal exports from Wyoming. Ultimately, China found it cheaper to get their coal from Australia.

    Why do we have to fight these same issues with the same ports thirty years later? Perspiring minds want to know. Keep up the battle.

    Posted Mon, Mar 26, 3:56 a.m. Inappropriate

    Environment is the most important, I believe that.


    Posted Mon, Apr 9, 6:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    Let's see. They don't want to use oil, or coal, or nuclear... I hate to break the news, but fairy dust and unicorn flatulence don't heat homes, or provide jobs. Of course the loony left doesn't care about that. Perhaps if all we humans weren't here we could have sustainable, green eco-nirvana that they're all looking for. Leaves me wondering, who is going to pull us back into the fifteenth century first, radical Muslims, or environmentalists?


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