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Industries gear up for the epic fight over NW coal ports

Two locomotives push a 129-car coal train along the waterfront in British Columbia. Credit: Michael Chu/Flickr

It's not exactly your father's design for a public hearing, but the seven public meetings to determine the scope of the giant export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham may better reflect the realities of communication in the 21st century.

Citizens interested in the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which under current plans will serve primarily to export coal to Asia, may weigh in until Jan. 21 in a variety of manners. When they are done, environmental officials will determine what should be studied among a broad variety of topics ranging from the global (coal's effects on global warming) to the regional (increased train and ship traffic) and local flora and fauna (wetlands and herring stock).

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County are jointly conducting the Environmental Impact Statement process.  They hope to publish a draft EIS in 2014; it is unlikely any earth will turned for at least another year and the first coal ship is not likely to sail to Cathay much before 2020.

As scoping continues, Americans vote, and elections could affect the final determination of the coal-export process. Washington gubernatorial candidates have not focused on the matter, but Democrat Jay Inslee is pushing a green-energy program that is not in synch with coal. At the national level, Republicans in the House of Representatives recently passed a pro-coal measure and the party at all levels has been skeptical of climate change.

Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark also has a role, assuming he is reelected, as Cherry Point includes a critical DNR aquatic reserve; Goldmark approved a management plan in 2010 and SSA Marine must adhere to that plan. Local elections in 2013, particularly for county council positions in Whatcom and Cowlitz counties, could also be critical.

Hope continues in some quarters for some type of comprehensive look at the five terminals proposed for coal export in Oregon and Washington, but the Corps of Engineers, federal lead agency in this field, has already rejected a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) in one instance, and the Cherry Point hearings are proceeding without this alternative. Northwest coal-export projects involve multiple jurisdictions and multiple ownerships of coal and land; descriptions of a PEIS in large federal projects such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or large-scale solar developments on federal land, don't seem to fit our situation.

Inevitably there will be talk and perhaps study of the cumulative effect of the projects. Certainly two big projects at Longview and Cherry Point would have more impact than a single port. The exact nature of that study won't be apparent for months, in what is certain to be a long and contentious process.

The length of the process — SSA Marine of Seattle announced plans for the export terminal in 2010 — reflects both the size and complexity of the project and the level of public opposition. That opposition is based on concerns dealing with coal emissions and dust, train traffic and diesel emissions, impacts on other freight and passenger rail service, and a broad unease best defined as "quality of life," particularly among Northwest communities that have pursued a "green agenda" sharply at odds with coal.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Bellingham, the small city tucked away in the nation's northwest corner, a community frequently on the lists of best places to live or visit, where citizens tax themselves for parks, schools, and open space and host a College of Environmental Studies and several sustainability nonprofits.

Bellingham will lead off the scoping public hearings on Saturday, Oct. 27, and the four-hour event will test a new hearings format. The remainder of the meetings, as announced by Ecology, include: Friday Harbor, Nov. 3; Mount Vernon, Nov. 5; Seattle, Nov. 13; Ferndale, Nov. 29; Spokane, Dec. 4 and Vancouver, Dec. 12.

Traditional public hearings are held before a governing body, augustly settled on a dais, with the folk addressing them from podiums; project proponents lead off, opponents respond and finally "the public" has its say. By this time both the bottoms and heads of the notables are asleep, but the requirement of "public input" has been satisfied.

Scoping on Gateway Pacific will be different, beginning with the acceptance of written statements this week (Monday, Sept. 24) and continuing until Jan. 21. Online testimony will be taken 24/7 and logged by the agencies.

The public meetings will avoid the traditional agenda-driven process by giving attendees a choice of ways to comment. Ecology spokesman Larry Altose described it to Crosscut: "There are no agendas. Each meeting, which is more like an open house than a formal hearing, will have an information area where people can browse posters and speak with staff. The materials at the meetings will be the same as those on line.On line is like a 24/7 meeting. People who want to give comments at the meetings can do so in writing at key-in stations, orally at small tables, or sign in first-to-sign-first-to-speak in a larger seating area. Representatives from the co-lead agencies will be present to listen in these larger areas. People can come and go during the meeting time. Scoping comments will be posted on the website, promptly, but not live."

It is an open question whether the accumulation of mountains of letters and emails and hours of oral testimony will prove a better gauge than the old public-hearing system; clearly it will pose logistic challenges for regulators and advocates as well.

Strategists on both sides of the issue were uncertain this week how to view the process and how best to present their cases. Although the export terminal is not the size or complexity of such public projects such as Sound Transit, viaduct replacement, or airport expansions, it has generated more controversy and push-back than most of those projects largely because the terminal's first and (thus far) only export cargo is coal, the bad boy of global warming and a commodity moved 100 percent in mile-and-a-half-long unit trains with the blast of air horns and emissions of coal dust and diesel fumes. The fact that most of the coal will wind up fueling power plants and factories in China doesn't add to its allure.

Equally challenging for SSA Marine and its allies is the decision by agencies to go both broad and long in setting up seven locations for public comment. Spokane and Vancouver are a huge nod to those who believe that adding some 18 unit coal trains per day to the region's rail traffic is a losing proposition. Trains would enter the state at Spokane, move through Tri-Cities and down the Columbia Gorge to Vancouver, taking a right turn up the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line to Cherry Point. Spokane is already a rail hub and its suburban neighbor, Cheney, is heavily impacted by current rail traffic.

The Columbia Gorge and the river it overlooks draw concern from recreation enthusiasts as well as defenders of the region's salmon fishery. The Vancouver meetings will also produce testimony from Oregonians concerned with proposals to ship coal from the Port of St. Helens; and from Longview-area folks who are looking down the road to an application from Millennium Bulk Terminals to ship some 44 million tons of coal a year from Longview. The public process on that project is a few months from commencing, and will also be contentious.

If both Gateway Pacific and Millennium are built, the train traffic would strain the BNSF rail system at several points in the Gorge and in Eastern Washington. But since the terminals would service separate coal companies (Peabody and Ambre Energy respectively), both will be pursued. Arch Coal is pushing a smaller (8.8 million tons) project on the Oregon side of the river at Boardman, where it would transfer the coal to barges and then directly from barge to ships downstream at St. Helens, possibly avoiding some environmental reviews. The Corps of Engineers, lead agency for the Port of Morrow site, indicated on Sept. 18 that it might skip the lengthy process demanded by environmentalists. A Portland firm is already hoping for a barge-building contract. Environmentalists immediately urged the Corps to reconsider.

Taken together the terminals would bring about 40 unit trains a day from Spokane to the Columbia Gorge, 34 of which would proceed to Longview and 18 on through Seattle and Bellingham.

The normally publicity-shy railroad reacted to anti-coal-train concerns by dispatching its top executive to the region. Matt Rose, CEO of BNSF, told the Vancouver Columbian the railroad would help cities "work through" problems raised by added coal traffic, which he admitted was a serious concern. The railroad's history, however, has been to pay no more than the 5 percent limit set by federal regulations on projects to mitigate railroad impacts on local communities — such as overpasses and grade crossings, some of which would be in the millions of dollars. Ross Macfarlane, senior advisor at Climate Solutions, asked Rose in an open letter to be specific in terms of aid to localities. Rose has not replied, Macfarlane said this week.

Rose's visit to Vancouver, Seattle, and Bellingham underscores BNSF's deepening concern that rail issues will be brought into the EIS for Cherry Point and Millennium. On May 14, Rose wrote to Gov. Chris Gregoire, assuring her that BNSF was capable of handling the increased freight for coal terminals, and that train-counts were "exaggerated" by critics, and that "virtually no measurable coal dust" would result from the trains. The letter was long on assurances and short on specifics. A similar letter was sent in August to Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws.

Rose's recent trip appeared to deliver more specific information, but Rose's train-count data considers only loaded coal trains, not empties returning along the same route. The EIS, should it include railroad traffic, will need to sort out some serious disagreements involving rail traffic.

The effort to export coal from the Pacific Northwest has taken on national overtones, with other heads of major companies weighing in. Peabody Energy President Stephen L. Miller stated, in a Aug. 22 letter to Louws that "Peobody intends to treat all coal the we export through Cherry Point with sealant, which is consistent with the railroad's requirements. We also use best practices to load trains that include proper coal sizing and load profiling. These practices will create a belt and suspenders approach to elminting any remaining concerns about dust in the stat or in Whatcom County from our shipments." 

Peabody, SSA Marine, Goldman Sachs, and others promoting Gateway Pacific and other coal-export terminals recently formed a new advocacy group,  Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, which has launched a television campaign on regional stations. Alliance membership overlaps that of Northwest Jobs Alliance, which formed to promote Gateway Pacific, but it also includes many large national and international mining, shipping, and rail companies and labor unions in those fields.

Although the railroad is the focus of much opposition to the terminal, other issues may ultimately play a larger role in a final decision. There is great concern in the San Juan Islands about adding nearly a thousand very large coal ships a year to traffic in key shipping lanes. The inclusion of Friday Harbor on the list of community hearings is a direct nod to concerns regarding shipping safety, impact on fisheries, and concern over ballast brought in from Asia.

Indian tribes and fishermen are worried about the impact on a critical herring habitat off Cherry Point, which has been in sharp decline for years; the herring are a major feedstock for salmon. The Lummi Nation, whose ancestors lived, fished and hunted on Cherry Point for hundreds of years, came out against Gateway Pacific on Sept. 21 in an emotional ceremony near the terminal site, recalling ancestors and calling for unity against the project. Tribal opposition on a project of this nature can be formidable, particularly when cultural issues are raised.

The GPT site also has substantial wetlands at the site where operations will take place. Mitigating the impact on perhaps 140 acres of wetlands could be difficult. In recent weeks, SSA Marine has taken an option on a large undeveloped site adjacent to the terminal site. Cherry Point Industrial Park attempted in the past to develop a terminal on the site, but the state will not allow more than one additional pierÑ — and SSA has the green light in that regard. But the Park's several parcels totaling 344 acres assessed at $1.9 million could provide a mitigation site to restore habitat to counter that lost in the GPT operations, or allow future expansion of the export terminal.

Both sides have high stakes in determination of a proper scope for the environmental review. SSA Marine and its allies benefit by a narrow scope, restricted as tightly as possible to the actual terminal site; drawing a thousand miles of railroad lines into the scope would not be good news. Opponents want a broad scope and lengthy process; delay brings the possibility of changes in the volatile Asian coal market.

The Seattle company is not accustomed to a climate like it faces at Cherry Point; most of its export terminals are in port industrial zones (like Seattle) and several are in Asia or the American South where the rules of the game are often quite different. The company has concentrated its pre-scoping efforts on its best-selling argument, the jobs that will come with development of the terminal.

To counter opposition and build a political base in Whatcom County, which will make the final decision on the terminal and impose any conditions on such a grant, SSA Marine has worked a substantial "ground game" all summer. Craig Cole, a former county councilman, was hired in 2010 to head efforts in the county; he is also SSA's registered lobbyist. Cole supervises a crew of canvassers who have worked most neighborhoods in the county, pressing new jobs and tax revenues. "We feel the Whatcom County community wants to be engaged," he tells Crosscut, "we'll talk to anybody who will have a conversation."

Working with Cole is David Warren, a popular former head of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council.  Leading unions, including Building and Construction Trades and Longshoremen, are boosting the terminal with its prospect of well-paying jobs. The pro-terminal alliance will also be looking to 2013 county elections, when four of the seven council members will face re-election. The council is often split on development issues but is admonished by counsel not to discuss the terminal before members are presented with a final EIS recommendation.

The volume of testimony will be mountainous. Tens of thousands of petitions and letters have already generated by both sides and pile up on the desks of agencies; the hearings will produce even more, creating an impossible task to review. Some type of winnowing is inevitable and both sides are turning to advertising as well as ground games to make their point where it is sure to be heard — which in turn will generate more paper.

Proponents have almost unlimited funds, should they elect to use them; SSA Marine is part of a holding company owned 49 percent by Goldman Sachs, Peabody Coal is the nation's largest coal company, and Arch Coal is the nation's second-largest. Ambre Energy is a huge international firm based in Australia. BNSF is owned by Warren Buffet.

Their message is invariably jobs, a theme that plays well in hard economic times. SSA Marine claims thousands of new jobs to build and then operate Gateway Pacific. Opponents claim as many will be lost to the region because of added coal-train traffic. Most of the numbers are soft on both sides, depending on projection of best-case or worst-case scenarios. The most solid study, an average of two economic studies paid for by SSA Marine, cites 430 direct jobs at build-out, about half on site and the others on railroads, shipping and tugs. These jobs pay well and most are union, averaging nearly $100,000 a year. Construction jobs, which come and go over a two-year period, would produce some 2,115 jobs, many also at high pay.

Whatcom County's unemployment level (7.6 in July) is usually below the state average but wage-levels are also low and the lure of high-paying employment is a selling point in the region. Tax benefits, which SSA estimates at $92 million a year at build-out, would particularly benefit schools in Ferndale and Blaine but also go to county and state budgets.

Power Past Coal, a coalition of anti-coal forces, opened a television campaign as well; a spot showing in Spokane featured a nurse talking about the threat of coal trains delaying ambulances. The coalition plans additional spots in other Northwest markets during scoping.

Opponents are also touting resolutions passed by city or county governments asking for a broad scope of study or opposing coal exports, but it remains to be seen whether statewide or local political leaders will take strong positions on an issue that splits two vital Democratic constituencies, organized labor and environmentalists. Republicans have been more supportive of the coal terminals.

Major partners in Power Past Coal include the Sierra Club and Climate Solutions, along with other regional and national environmental organizations. The Sierra Club is the best-heeled of these organizations, which are more numerous than endowed; but they can organize a ground game to counter big bucks on the other side. Organizers are encouraged by the seven-city schedule and expect counterparts from Oregon and perhaps Idaho and Montana to show up at the Vancouver and Spokane sessions.

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