Odd provision in state law severely uncuts growth management

U.S. laws limit the burning of coal here, and Washington state has a strong green influence. Passenger rail in Seattle and beyond would suffer consequences from shipments to Bellingham. But the financial firepower lined up in favor of shipping coal from Washington ports to China is gigantic.

Crosscut archive image.

Shipping coal to Asia has become a major business in Canada.

U.S. laws limit the burning of coal here, and Washington state has a strong green influence. Passenger rail in Seattle and beyond would suffer consequences from shipments to Bellingham. But the financial firepower lined up in favor of shipping coal from Washington ports to China is gigantic.

Washington may be on the verge of a classic environmental and political battle, due to China's insatiable demand for coal. The state's deep-water ports stand between the Asian giant and the massive Powder River strip mines of Montana and Wyoming.

Add to the oversize characters in the drama the world's largest stevedoring company, the region's dominant railroad, and one of the world's richest investors.

Against this formidable lineup will be organized opposition from the region's major environmental organizations and from community activists protective of the livability of the region and their neighborhoods in particular.

Economically, the looming match-up is overwhelmingly weighted to the big corporations involved, including Seattle-based Carrix Inc., the international giant that owns SSA Marine, the largest stevedoring company in the world. Politically, major players are keeping their heads down, respectful of the economic clout involved but also aware of the political power of Washington Greens.

Gov. Christine Gregoire's Department of Ecology, however, intervened on behalf of environmentalists attempting to stop Cowlitz County from approving a coal port at Longview, on the site of a former aluminum plant. Environmentalists are also watching closely as Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark goes about assessing plans to build a big shipping terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, primarily to allow Burlington Northern Santa Fe to haul coal from Powder River. Sensitive aquatic sites are part of the process at Cherry Point; the Columbia River's fish and wildlife are keys to the Longview process.

Gregoire, after a hastily-arranged meeting Wednesday with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, took no sides but worried environmentalists when she told King5 News, "I have no personal objection whatsoever to us having coal come through our ports and exported somewhere around the world."_Gregoire said that for the present, she just wants to be sure regulatory rules are followed, and she would take no position on the Longview site.

In October, Gregoire's Commerce director, Rogers Weed, said the governor wants to "move forward" a new shipping terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, citing an opportunity to ship more Washington grain to Asia. Grain would benefit from any new shipping terminal in the state, but it is increasingly apparent that the real target is coal, primarily for Chinese power plants.

Despite the inevitable legal battles, the corporate power of coal port advocates is daunting. Although all the players have national and international reach, SSA, the company that would build and operate the Cherry Point facility, has its roots in Bellingham. In 1949, Fred R. Smith of Bellingham founded Bellingham Stevedoring, which later became Seattle Stevedoring Company and then, in 1990, Stevedoring Services of America.

SSA began efforts to develop the Cherry Point loading facility. SSA and two other affiliates make up Carrix, the world's largest marine and rail terminal operator. Smith's grandson, Jon Hemingway, is CEO of SSA, headquartered in Seattle (as is Carrix).

The Longview terminal would be operated by a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, a giant conglomerate based in Australia. The BNSF rail line is owned by Warren Buffett's Hathaway Inc., and the financial giant Goldman Sachs is playing a large role as an equity investor in Carrix. The coal is harvested by some the world's major corporations and, of course, China owns a large portion of the U.S. debt.

The market for American coal had been threatened by the closure of domestic coal plants, under fire for their carbon emissions, but the emergence of powers such as China and India has revived the coal market. Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times notes that China now burns half of the 6 billion tons of coal used globally each year and has become a major importer of coal. "As a result, not only are the pollutants that developed countries have tried to reduce finding their way into the atmosphere anyway, but ships chugging halfway around the globe are spewing still more." While American laws strictly limit burning of coal, they are less strict regarding the mining, transportation, and shipping of coal.

If there is an inevitability to increased coal use in China — and it is hard to imagine the Chinese voluntarily halting economic growth — there may also be an offset, according to James Fallows in The Atlantic. Fallows believes the Chinese are in position to lead the way to clean methods of using coal, and have a technological step on other nations. An unusual collaboration of Chinese and American scientists is creating new ways to reduce carbon releases. "The group has sponsored research on sequestration, on post-combustion capture, and on the 'cleanest' of the emerging pre-combustion coal technologies," underground coal gasification, Fallows states. But any new breakthrough will lag demand for at least the near future.

China's explosive growth in recent years has awakened the plans for new shipping terminals in Longview and at Cherry Point. Until very recently, the idea of shipping coal on a massive scale through Pacific Northwest ports was not openly discussed, although it had long been on the table for BNSF and some of the other partners. But since nearly all the players are privately owned, most of those discussions were not aired publicly.

Public agencies play a smaller role in this case than in many industrial matters, because little of the basic infrastructure is publicly owned. The Longview coal port would be on property owned by Alcoa, the site of an aluminum plant, closed in 2001. Cowlitz County commissioners on Nov. 23 issued a shoreline development permit, certifying that there was no substantial environmental harm in constructing and operating the loading facility. Environmental groups petitioned the Shoreline Hearings Board, a quasi-judicial state agency, for reversal of the rulings. The board could rule as early as April. Cowlitz commissioners are elected, offering opponents a political remedy. About 75 protestors showed up to greet Gov. Schweitzer, but in an area hard hit by loss of jobs, it is hard to say that reflects community sentiment.

Politics played a role in Tacoma, where the elected port authority rejected consideration of shipping coal from the Port of Tacoma. The port cited "a multitude of community and business factors" in deciding not to expand its shipping to include coal.

In Bellingham, the nearest major city to Cherry Point, opposition to a coal port will also be political, led by some of the green-friendly community's major environmental organizations. City and county officials have no formal role in the process; Cherry Point is privately owned and outside any port authority. It presently houses the state's largest refinery (owned by BP), a ConocoPhillips refinery and an Aloca aluminum plant; in total they represent about 1,500 direct jobs.

SSA Marine, the Carrix affiliate that would build the $400 million loading facility at Cherry Point, led political and union leaders on a tour of the site in October, and elicited enthusiasm from several participants. SSA executives estimate the two-to-three year construction phase would employ 1,100 people, with a permanent workforce of 150 to 200 once the terminal is operating, according to the Bellingham Herald. "How can we not be in favor of it, for a variety of reasons?" Dave Warren, president of the Northwest Central Labor Council, told the Herald. "I don't know when another opportunity like this is going to come into our community."

There will be debate as to whether a coal port is an opportunity or a long-range sacrifice to short-term jobs. A sustainability group, Re Sources, and its affiliate, North Sound Baykeeper, have raised questions. Bob Ferris, ReSources executive director, points to the potential for 12 coal trains a day (six round trips), each a mile or more long, running right through the center of Bellingham, leaving coal dust and traffic disruption in their wake. The huge Roberts Bank coal port south of Vancouver, B.C., he charged, has created an aquatic "dead zone" and similar fears are raised at Cherry Point. Opponents also decry the "jobs" argument, saying that short-term employment will be outweighed by the long-term impact of pollution both here and in China (which circulates worldwide and in particular to the West Coast of the U.S.). They fear the U.S. will become a "colony" for China-exporting American natural resources that China uses to manufacture goods at low wages to sell back to Americans.

Coal port opponents in Bellingham will also point to the disruption of two of the city's major assets, the Fairhaven historic district and future development of the city's waterfront, where a 137-acre parcel is being prepared for mixed commercial, industrial, and residential use on a former paper mill site. In both cases, the BNSF tracks run through or directly adjacent to some of the city's most valuable property. The city has at least a half-dozen grade crossings on the railroad, and it runs alongside a heavily used waterfront park and trail. BNSF quietly began adding two or three coal trains a day to its lines in recent months, en route to Roberts Bank, without noticeable protest; doubling or tripling that number will not be as easy.

Although Bellingham by the nature of its urban concentration appears particularly vulnerable to increased coal trains, Mount Vernon is also bisected by rail tracks and in Seattle trains run between the city and its waterfront. Most cities along the route would have some impact from increased traffic.

The coal port proposals will test more than the mettle of neighborhood activists and environmentalists; Washington's commitment to rail passenger service will be directly tested. At the same time that the state looks forward to putting $161 million in new federal grants to work to improve Amtrak service from Seattle to Blaine, the prospect of sharing the tracks with mile-long coal trains is sobering.

Bruce Agnew, who is heading a passenger-train "modeling" exercise for the Cascadia Project and Whatcom County governments, says, "It is clear that expansion of coal trains from the Powder River Basin through Northwest ports to China is their (BNSF) major strategic initiative." Agnew is trying to find ways to double or triple the number of passenger trains scheduled from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., but hits serious obstacles north of Everett, where every train runs on a single track with limited sidings. Of particular note is the narrow rail bed below the historic and scenic Chuckanut Drive south of Bellingham, where it would be impossible to construct additional tracks or sidings. The area is also subject to landslides and other earth movement. The degree to which coal trains could be scheduled at night, and implications from such a decision, are unknown.

It is difficult to see a scenario in which Amtrak could substantially increase its passenger trains north of Seattle at the same time that BNSF a dozen coal trains of a mile or more in length-all on a single track. Presently, passengers on Amtrak are accustomed to waiting on sidings while freight trains thunder by on the main track.

The tradeoffs are so large and in many ways so sweeping that they may ultimately involve the Legislature, as no one body at local or state level can deal with all the impacts of a development the size of coal ports in two or more Washington ports. The suggestion of a statewide response was raised by Kevin Wilhelm and Ross Macfarlane in a Seattle Times Op-ed calling for a rejection of coal ports.

The nation's railroad infrastructure, one of the worst in the industrial world, has been neglected for decades and now plays a big role in how we create an industrial and energy policy in a time of shifting global economics, climate change and environmental degradation. Our neglect of basic investment in transportation may save us from hasty decisions with repercussions far down the road.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.