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Coal exports from Bellingham could ramp up rapidly

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

Original plans for Gateway Pacific envisioned partial operation to begin in 2017 with full operation by 2026. The 2017 opening target has been abandoned, but GPT now hopes to open at full capacity seven years earlier, in 2019, according to a company letter sent to the county. Instead of beginning with about 25 million tons of coal a year in 2017 and gradually moving to 48 million tons by 2026, GPT now hopes to ship the full 48 million tons in 2019. The terminal has contracts with Peabody Coal and Cloud Peak Energy for 40 million tons already, which GPT says is sufficient to plan a full-capacity opening.

That puts great pressure on BNSF Railway to improve and expand rail lines north of Everett, which are largely single-track with sidings. Railroad information is closely held by BNSF Railway. But the railroad’s work has been evident for months in Whatcom County. A seldom-used single-track line running from Sumas on the Canadian border to Burlington has been upgraded and is already hauling empty coal cars, unloaded at a British Columbia port for shipment to Asia, back to the coalfields. Empty oil trains may be added in the future, as crude-by-rail increases at Cherry Point refineries; it is expected that returning cars from GPT would use the rural line as well.

Additional rail construction is taking place on the BNSF mainline between Burlington and Bellingham, and stockpiles of concrete railroad ties have been noted in Bellingham itself.

Although BNSF has consistently said no new sidings will be needed in Bellingham itself specifically for GPT, such construction has long been predicted by rail consultants and by CommunityWise Bellingham, a local organization that has led the effort to flush out the plans of the railroad. CWB is associated with a series of letters, increasingly strongly worded, sent by the Bellingham City Council to Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws. 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.

Whatcom County has an unusual — perhaps unique — ordinance that requires the developers of a major project (and GPT certainly qualifies as a major project) to reveal how it will transport goods and supplies and to reimburse the public for projects such as bridges, overpasses and roads required to deal with the project. Louws has not directly replied to the city’s two-year request that it hold GPT responsible for identifying rail impacts, and the tone of the city's letters may hint at potential legal battles unless the county acts.

City Councilman Michael Lilliquist notes that GPT has committed to pay for rail improvements at Custer, north of Bellingham, to serve the export terminal; the same should hold if new overpasses or roads are needed 20 miles south in Bellingham, he contends. At the minimum, the city expects information on railroad plans to deal with GPT, and believes that is required by Whatcom County’s ordinance.

In communities such as Bellingham, Burlington and Marysville with several at-grade crossings, mitigation could cost tens of millions of local taxpayer dollars. Seattle and other cities in the Central Puget Sound area are also worried. A major study of GPT’s impact on the economics of the Puget Sound region will be released Thursday by the Puget Sound Regional Council. The council contracted with Public Financial Management Inc., a national consulting firm; a major topic will involve regional transportation impacts.

A speed-up in full operation of GPT affects not only Whatcom County but also every community along the thousand-mile rail route from Wyoming. Studies by terminal opponents such as the Sightline and Forest Ethics have dramatized the rail congestion if several coal and/or crude-oil terminals are built. Even the cautious Washington State Department of Transportation’s rail division has identified choke points in northwestern Washington, the Columbia Gorge and Spokane and the Tri-Cities region. The advent of crude-oil trains — several trains a day serve Washington refineries at present and more are planned — adds safety concerns to the fears of congestion, noise and health risks from coal trains.

Concerns about safety of oil trains have been voiced by public agencies across the state, but the safety of coal trains could be called into play with news that BNSF and its largest union are planning to begin one-person train operations within a year, if union members approve the deal. Railway Age, a trade paper, termed the agreement, “a gutsy, proactive, and far-sighted collaboration,” in which the conductor now paired with the train engineer would be replaced by a distant “master conductor” who could by remote control shut down a train in an emergency. Crude-oil trains and others carrying hazardous material would not be affected; coal is not considered a hazardous material.

Railroads have been downsizing crews for decades as diesel replaced steam and new technology emerged. There was, for instance, intense lobbying and maneuvering in the Oregon Legislature in the mid-1960s over railroads’ efforts to reduce crew sizes. A “full crew” law adopted in Washington in 1911 was still in effect in 1959 (perhaps later), requiring six-person crews on freight trains. Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration could still get involved in the issue, but both are notably friendly to the railroad industry. The engineer may soon be the only survivor of the “full crew.”

Crew sizes are not limited to coal trains, of course, but energy cargoes increasingly dominate rail traffic nationwide, causing concern among traditional shippers of intermodal and agricultural products. Energy exports and the manner of their transport cannot be separated either economically or politically, despite the best efforts to lessen impacts on the land.

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