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Tale of Two Cities: Ferndale welcomes Big Coal

A loaded coal train crosses Main Street, Ferndale’s only grade separation Credit: Photo: Paul K. Anderson

Editor's note: This two-part series looks at the local impact of the giant Gateway Pacific coal export terminal being considered for Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. If approved and built, Gateway Pacific will dramatically increase the number and size of trains hauling coal through western Washington's railroad towns. Here is how the prospect of Big Coal plays in industrial Ferndale. Tomorrow, we'll visit small town Burlington, just 40 miles down the track.

Cherry Point gave Ferndale new life more than half a century ago. The site’s two big oil refineries, aluminum plant and co-generation facility turned the struggling farm town into a bedroom community with acres of attractive suburban homes for the new commuters traveling back and forth to nearby Bellingham. Over the years, Cherry Point has pumped millions into the city and its school system.

No surprise then that Ferndale officials — and most of its residents — support the giant coal-export facility that is being proposed for the Cherry Point site. If approved and built, the so-called Gateway Pacific Terminal would be the nation’s largest coal export operation. The proposed $665 million investment would make GPT the second most valuable property in Whatcom County, right after the BP Refinery at Cherry Point.

In addition to the obvious boon to Ferndale’s property tax base, the city also stands to gain many of the 430 permanent jobs at GPT, plus temporary construction jobs. For this city of 12,000, firmly middle-class and blue-collar, Cherry Point industries pay good wages.

But Ferndale officials and citizens clearly face a conflict over GPT. The obvious economic benefits of a new coal port come with equally obvious downsides.

Coal is an unpopular commodity, China an unpopular destination and since GPT coal will be transported by rail and not ship, congestion from coal trains is a huge concern for the increasing number of commuters filling Ferndale’s quiet cul-de-sac neighborhoods.

Tradeoffs are inevitable if Ferndale continues to back another Cherry Point plant. But city leaders are among the proponents featured in GPT testimonials.

Ferndale citizens won’t be the ones voting to approve GPT. The Whatcom County Council is the major decision-maker among several agencies. But the view from Ferndale will certainly be on the radar when the County Council votes — no earlier than 2015 by most estimates. 

Today’s deep-water ports on Georgia Strait bring crude oil from Alaska by tankers. The giant ships create few negative impacts, while providing good jobs and tax revenue. It’s been a win-win deal for the ports and their surrounding communities for half a century and, at least in the early going, it looked like more of the same when SSA Marine announced its plans to construct a huge export terminal on a thousand-acre site between the BP and Tosco refineries at Cherry Point.

“We know what Cherry Point did for Ferndale,” says Mayor Gary Jensen, who grew up along with Ferndale in the shadow of these plants. “Cherry Point is a special kind of thing to Ferndale.” The second-term mayor defended the city’s action on April 4, 2011 to become an early supporter of Gateway Pacific.

Ferndale City Council members say they were not told that the terminal would export coal, almost exclusively, and that 18 coal trains a day would be running right through the city. Coal was no secret, however; Peabody Coal had announced an agreement with GPT a month earlier. SSA Marine representatives quickly got all six of Whatcom County’s Small City Caucus members to support the project by stressing payrolls, taxes and a multi-commodity terminal.

Was that vote premature? Jensen won’t say. He defends the right of SSA Marine to present its case for the terminal, and is happy to let the approval process unfold. “I still support going forward,” he says, “but not unconditionally.”

Mayor Jensen (at left) was still firmly on board as of May 29, however, as a sponsor of the GPT-generated letter asking Gov. Jay Inslee to extend to industrial projects in rural areas “the same pro-business stance” the state has extended to Boeing and Microsoft.

Ferndale leads Whatcom County in the number of new home starts. Largely absent from its verdant lawns are the “No Coal” signs that blossom in nearby Bellingham. Even pro-GPT lawn signs are scarce. Cherry Point is such a fixture in Ferndale that saying “no” to an expansion is rare indeed.

One exception is City Councilman Lloyd Zimmerman (pictured below). “We’ve got to take a broader approach to the whole food chain,” he says. A certified nutritional therapist, Zimmerman argues that coal burned in Asia produces toxic fallout in this region. “I am deathly aware of the negative human and biological impact that heavy metals create,” Zimmerman wrote in January to the agencies reviewing GPT’s application. “The rest of the City Council are ignorant to these facts, only hoping for a few jobs and tax dollars. They have no clue as to the long term costs of their endorsements of coal transport and burning.”

Clearly in the minority on the export terminal, Zimmerman leaves the City Council this year.

Even for GPT supporters, though, the terminal’s promise of added rail traffic is a concern. “I believe people might feel different if they had a demonstration of 20 (or more) trains a day,” notes Mayor Jensen. Although Jensen signed a Small City Caucus letter on Nov. 29, 2012 urging that environmental review be limited to the GPT site, rather than broadened to include communities such as Ferndale, the city’s development director Jori Burnett, in his mayor-approved EIS comments, noted that the study “should also address the degree to which Ferndale, as a central hub of activity, would experience greater (or unique) impacts than communities elsewhere.”

The term “mitigation” appears 17 times in Burnett’s five-page letter, implying that project developers or BNSF should pay to ease the inevitable burden of all those coal trains.

Ferndale’s Main Street underpasses the railroad tracks, but five other crossings are at-grade. One, Thornton Road, is now closed and on the city’s wish list for a grade separation that could cost $20 million. The City Council decided not to ask voters for a penny-per-gallon tax to raise $50,000 a year just for street repairs. A grade separation would require getting outside money.

Ferndale Schools maintain a meticulously neutral position on the terminal. Cherry Point provides a big share of the school system’s tax base; four of the county’s biggest property taxpayers are at Cherry Point. For schools in Ferndale and nearby Blaine it’s been a very good deal for a very long time.

Cherry Point industries already generate about $2.5 million a year for Ferndale schools; the district’s 2013 property tax levy is $16.5 million. The GPT site is split between Blaine and Ferndale schools. A GPT consultant estimated that the terminal would add $1.4 million to Ferndale’s property-tax base. That could lead to a drop in property taxes paid by other property owners, and also could make it easier for the district to pass future property tax levies.

None of Whatcom County’s seven cities (including Ferndale) gets property taxes from Cherry Point, which is outside any city boundary. But Cherry Point would add an estimated million dollars to the county’s road budget, a selling point in rural areas.

Ferndale is changing as more commuters fill its quiet suburbs. It is less hard-core conservative than the rest of rural Whatcom County. In 2012, the city’s precincts helped keep Barack Obama in the White House and supported two Democratic candidates for the state legislature.

Still, Ferndale remains the city that Cherry Point built. The specter of coal trains that has generated major backlash in other cities along the line does not seem to have weakened support in Ferndale. The city is unlikely to turn its back on the jobs and taxes the Gateway Pacific Terminal promises. Its new neighborhoods are located well away from the tracks and train horns.

Unlike its neighbors from Cheney to Burlington, Ferndale will likely continue as a poster child for the terminal upsides, and a critical pro-Gateway constituency in November’s Whatcom County Council elections.

Click here for Part Two of the series: a look at Burlington, a Northwest town with a different take on coal trains.

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