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Coal Train: The people and process behind Bellingham's coal port decision

The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal has sparked the most-complex environmental review since, well, forever. The first public comment period ends today. In this first of a three-part series, take an inside look at the players on both sides of the issue.
The Lummi Nation is one of many groups that oppose Gateway.

The Lummi Nation is one of many groups that oppose Gateway. Floyd McKay

“The long and winding road . . . that leads to your door.” Paul McCartney’s road could scarcely be longer and more twisted than the process that rolls forth next week as public comment closes (for the moment) on the controversial proposal to build a giant coal-export terminal north of Bellingham. 

The Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) project has prompted the region’s most-complex environmental review since public agencies began doing environmental reviews in the 1970s. More than 10,000 comments were logged during the four-month period that closes today (Tuesday) at 5 p.m. In seven public meetings, online and via mail, citizens from across Washington and adjoining states told three public agencies what issues they want studied in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will shape the fate of the huge terminal. 

Gateway Pacific is the latest of several proposals to site a fourth industry at Cherry Point, 17 miles south of the Canadian border on the Strait of Georgia. Marine SSA, the Seattle-based global terminal operator that will build and run the Cherry Point facility, proposed a smaller export terminal in the 1990s and gained some of the necessary permits. The process was delayed by a lawsuit that resulted in a 1999 agreement with environmental agencies. SSA did not pursue to the next permitting steps.    

Gov. Chris Gregoire recognized the scale of the SSA Marine project. In November 2012, she created a multi-agency permitting team (MAP) to streamline the process. The 17-member MAP includes representatives from eight public agencies and from SSA Marine and BNSF Railway, which will build the spur line that will service the terminal. Despite the MAP's efforts to simplify, the process from application to approval or rejection remains long and thorny, governed by both state and national laws and regulations. The MAP is not currently meeting and the permitting process has begun.    

Final decisions on a host of permits aren’t expected until at least 2016 and legal appeals are inevitable. Even the most-optimistic timeline forecasts agree that no coal will be loaded onto Asia-bound ships until 2018, probably later—if at all. The sheer size and complexity of the project, the controversial nature of the coal it will load and the number of governmental agencies involved promise bumps and even some craters in the long and winding road to the terminal.

This is the first in a three-part series that will attempt to make sense of the elaborate permitting process, and take a look at the players (both pro and con) and the deciders.

Part One: The Players

The principal and project developer is Seattle-based SSA Marine. The company was founded in 1949 by Fred Smith as Bellingham Stevedoring Co., and moved to Seattle in the 1950s. Bellingham Stevedoring became SSA Marine in 1984. It is now the world’s largest terminal operator, with facilities in areas as far-flung as Vietnam and Iraq. Goldman Sachs Infrastructure Partners bought 49 percent of SSA in 2007. Goldman Sachs is just one of the deep-pocket partners who are working to help SSA open Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Peabody Coal, the world’s largest private coal company, is another terminal supporter. Peabody signed an agreement in March 2011 to ship 24 million tons a year of Powder River Basin coal through the Gateway terminal to Asian markets. Peabody, like all U.S. coal companies, has lost much of its domestic market to cheaper natural gas and to tighter rules on air pollution. 

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway plays an important supporting role. BNSF would transport the coal 1,000 miles from Wyoming to Cherry Point. A fully-operating terminal would generate 18 coal trans a day—nine full, nine empty and each a mile and a half long. Those 18 trains are a big jump from the current number (about four a day) serving Canadian coal terminals. The new train traffic would more than double present rail traffic north of Everett. BNSF has consistently refused to divulge how it would handle the increase and who would pay to upgrade the rail system.  


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jan 22, 8:02 a.m. Inappropriate

With 10,000 opinions preceding this one, I'll be brief.
Everyone chooses the option that is in their own interest - always!
Peabody, BNSF, labor and GPT all see profits from this.
Towns, tribes, ecologists, and consumers all see un-reimbursed costs to them.
Government sits in the middle with two large guns pointed at their head.
I for one, think shipping the last of our fossil fuel supplies to China for pennies on the dollar going to the Railroads and and others is penny wise, and pound foolish.
We've drained our capital reserves, so let's not do the same to our natural reserves.

007

Posted Tue, Jan 22, 12:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Well said!

pragmatic

Posted Tue, Jan 22, 2:04 p.m. Inappropriate

On Jan. 4, U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Ron Wyden called for an investigation on coal royalties. Are the owners of the coal, the U.S. citizens getting their fair share?

Will NEPA or SEPA be able to override federal law to have the railroad pay more for crossings or mitigate noise? If not, will changes be made to federal laws?

Chicago is a giant federally legislated quiet zone. What makes them special? The entire coal train route could get quiet zone status.

Cities along the route have a large economic liability in the 95 - 5 cost share. We'll see how this plays out.

Posted Wed, Jan 23, 6:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Floyd,
Actually, it wasn't PPC that was responsible for getting unique comments in the record. While there was a huge drive to get in postcards and online form comments by ngos, it was a grassroots movement that created scoping materials and led the drive to inform the public about the role of scoping. Protect Whatcom and Safeguard the South Fork started the effort that was carried forward by a network of others in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan Counties.

TJW

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