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.

(Page 2 of 3)

SSA Marine and BNSF and the coal industry in general joined forces in 2012 to form the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, an advertising and public relations effort managed by Edelman, a large national firm with offices in Seattle. The Alliance is believed to have spent several million dollars in the last half of 2012 on regional television and radio ads. The ads focus on jobs, and the campaign has created strange bedfellows. 

Floyd McKay
Northwest Labor Council’s Mark Lowry: "It’s the jobs.
"

The Alliance has found partners in the organized-labor world. Unions in construction, longshore and rail industries are active, as are umbrella groups of unions, such as the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council. “I don’t do business with Peabody,” Mark Lowry, head of the Central Labor Council told Cascadia Weekly’s Bob Simmons. “I don’t like Peabody . . . But I am forced to be a realist. SSA Marine has a good record of dealing honestly and reasonably with unions and offering living-wage jobs with good benefits. That’s what we’re after.” 

The quest to acquire all the necessary building permits has already cost SSA Marine $961,703 under a contract to pay the big engineering firm CH2M Hill to run the four-month process that will "scope" the project. No price has been negotiated for the subsequent Environmental Impact Statement process, although it will be much higher. The project applicant must pay all the costs of the permitting process. In addition, SSA has hired consultants and campaign workers to spur turnout and build up support in Whatcom County, support that they hope will lead to a receptive county council in the 2013 elections. The Whatcom County Council will eventually vote on the two largest permits for the terminal; project-friendly council members would be a plus for SSA.     

GPT opponents have also spent money, hiring anti-GPT campaign leaders and rallying volunteers; again, some of the opposition effort will be focused on the 2013 county election. By the time final votes are in, millions will have been spent on permitting, advertising and public relations. Gateway Pacific Terminal is already creating jobs, although none involve shoveling coal. 

Local and national environmental groups opposed to the terminal have been joined by doctors concerned about the health implications of coal and diesel emissions. Local governments facing heavy costs to deal with the increased rail traffic also oppose the terminal, as do a host of marine scientists, tourism businesses and fishermen concerned about ship traffic.

The umbrella agency for opponents is Power Past Coal (PPC), which is active in four Northwest states and has put a major effort into helping citizens enter comments during the four-month “scoping” process that determines which environmental issues will be studied.

Probably the best-known of the PPC cohort is the Sierra Club. A longtime opponent of coal in this country, the Club's efforts are now focused on exports. Its campaign got a $50 million boost from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2011, moving it into the “deep pockets” league. In Washington, the groups Climate Solutions in Seattle and ReSources in Seattle and Bellingham play a key role. Given coal's contribution to global warming, the re-emergence of concern about climate change has been a boon to terminal opponents.

The health hazards associated with burning coal propelled the group called Whatcom Docs into the fray. With some 180 supporters in the medical community, Whatcom Docs has led opposition, pointing out the dangers of airborne coal dust and of diesel particulates from idling rail engines. In the San Juan Islands, retired scientists, some with degrees in marine sciences, have given the opposition an academic gravitas. See an example here

And then there is the coalition of Native American tribes supporting the Lummi Nation in its fight to protect historic fishing grounds and a cultural site. Environmental reviews must be sensitive to Native American rights.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

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

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »