Coal exports from Bellingham could ramp up rapidly

A new plan reduces impacts on wetlands, but train traffic could speed up.
Crews work on railroad tracks near Chuckanut Drive in the Bellingham area. Samish Bay is in the background.

Crews work on railroad tracks near Chuckanut Drive in the Bellingham area. Samish Bay is in the background. Floyd McKay

Developers of the largest of the region’s proposed coal-export terminals have shifted their site plan to claim a dramatic reduction in impacts on wetlands.

Simultaneously, SSA Marine, the Seattle international terminal operator, said it will speed up plans to operate Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) north of Bellingham at full capacity. The capacity planning, along with plentiful evidence that BNSF Railway is beefing up its tracks in northwestern Washington to prepare for more coal and oil traffic, alerted terminal foes and brought immediate pushback Monday from the Bellingham City Council.

Potentially adding fuel to the fire, BNSF and its largest union are moving toward a contract that allows the railroad to run the 130-car, mile-plus-long coal trains with a single engineer in the cab, replacing the present practice of two in the cab.

All of this is part of the unfolding drama of Big Energy’s efforts to move massive amounts of coal and crude oil from the energy basins of Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota to deepwater ports in the Pacific Northwest for export to Asia. A formidable bank of environmental regulations and regulators must be cleared, and a host of local environmentalists, climate warriors and community groups will be heard.

SSA Marine claimed some environmental high ground with its new announcement of a change in its site plan, to allow it to reduce by 49 percent the acreage of wetlands on the roughly 300 acres it will develop. Wetlands mitigation had been a serious issue for the project, which will be on the Straits of Georgia at Cherry Point in northern Whatcom County.

About two years ago, after it had filed its original GPT application, SSA bought a 353-acre parcel, the former Chicago Bridge & Iron property. The new site, according to Senior Vice President Bob Watters, added upland property that allowed the reduction in wetlands, as well as a reduction in the terminal’s overall footprint by 14 percent.

Whatcom County officials have allowed the new wetlands plan to be substituted for the original GPT application, stating that the new plan “does not materially alter the (original) application.”

The emergence of SSA's new wetlands mitigation site has delayed much of the key work in drafting an environmental impact statement (EIS) by the county and the state Department of Ecology. The agencies jointly signed a $7.2 million contract on Feb. 27 for EIS work by the engineering firm CH2M Hill. But studies never began on what the agencies call “direct impacts,” on the site itself, because officials were told that SSA Marine contractors were working on a revised site plan.

A draft EIS that had been targeted for April 30, 2015 will likely not be available before the end of 2015. Ecology’s Alice Kelly told Crosscut that work has been done on off-site or “indirect” issues, such as rail, shipping, fish and health issues, that will not be affected by changes to wetlands. But the draft EIS must wait for review of the wetlands changes.

Wetlands issues are important to state and federal agencies and GPT’s new site plan will greatly ease these concerns, but will not affect objections of the Lummi Nation, tribal elders say. That's because the changes do not address cultural or fishing rights associated with the terminal, they say.

Many of the most-publicized objections to the terminal are actually away from the GPT site itself — in the case of global climate change, thousands of miles away — and beyond the reach of SSA Marine to address, except perhaps politically. The major push for exports is coming from huge coal companies such as Peabody and Cloud Peak, who hope Asian markets can replace shrinking American coal consumption. Gateway Pacific is, in effect, the “hinge” that makes it all work and, since it is the first of several coal or oil terminal proposals, actions or precedents are potentially critical to the entire energy-export picture in the region.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 7:04 p.m. Inappropriate

"The latest, sent Monday night, asks the county to pressure BNSF to release its plans to serve GPT and the mounting crude-by-rail traffic."

Actually this is a point of confusion and uncertainty. BNSF is not building the coal terminal. Should the railroad be responsible for answering questions or for providing capacity?

The technical question comes down to: Who is the applicant responsible for responding to requests for information? I don't think it is BNSF. For the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) coal terminal, the applicant is PIT (Pacific International Terminals), a subsidiary of SSA Marine (itself a subsidiary of Carrix International, a closely held company including institutional investors).

However, I have been told that for the Custer Spur rail, SSA Marine is joined by BNSF as co-applicant. Does that mean that the railroad is also responsible? What about rail improvements in other parts of the county? Other parts of the state? Who is responsible for those? Although railroads are involved, I think the real responsible party is the SSA Marine -- but who can say.

Michaell

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 10:03 p.m. Inappropriate

That was my mistake, in fact I contradicted myself above. In the paragraph Michaeli cites I mistakenly said the county was asked to pressure BNSF; not so, the pressure called for would be to ask SSA Marine as the operator of Gateway Pacific to state how it intended to get products to the terminal. I got it right in the following paragraph. GPT, of course, would ultimately need to get the data from the railroad, but it is the responsibility of the terminal applicant to provide the data, according to the county ordinance. Sorry for the confusion.

Posted Thu, Jul 24, 12:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Anyone who doubts the Bellingham coal port is not already a done deal need only note how BNSF is upgrading the relevant rail lines.

The upgrading proves the associated political process – environmental-impact statements included – is nothing more than another charade of the sort that now exemplifies the Big Lie of U.S. democracy.

Under the new paradigm of U.S. governance, anything the capitalists want, the capitalists get – no matter how many will suffer or die as a consequence.

Were the fix not already in, the railroad would not be spending the money to bolster its tracks to support increased traffic.

Posted Sat, Jul 26, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps the affected cities with at grade crossings can limit by law trains to no more than 10 minutes every 4 hours during peak hours, with a total of no more than 8 trains every 24 hours. If delay and disruption is necessary, all parties should share in the inconvenience.

ruffner

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