Coal plans raise questions for Bellingham

A city committed to sustainability could find itself on a major route for sending coal to China for electricity generation. Bellingham's mayor wants railroad line assurances that the city will be protected from local impacts.

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Bellingham Bay

A city committed to sustainability could find itself on a major route for sending coal to China for electricity generation. Bellingham's mayor wants railroad line assurances that the city will be protected from local impacts.

International mining giants that hope to sell more American coal to fuel the power plants and factories of China have their eyes set on Washington state ports to load the huge ships. But the link between mines and ports is over a thousand miles of railroad, and the impact of the mile-long coal trains is beginning to create pushback along the line.

That became apparent last week in Bellingham, one of the cities most impacted by any additional rail traffic — tracks run directly through some of the city's most valuable property — as public discussion of a proposed coal terminal at nearby Cherry Point turned to the impact caused by trains en route to the terminal.

At a forum sponsored by Whatcom Democrats, Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike placed a marker on the table: his administration will demand some payback for the community if it backs the proposal to build a giant commodities terminal several miles north of the city.

The construction of the proposed Gateway Pacific terminal at Cherry Point is, in Bellingham at least, really a three-way issue because of additional coal trains traffic from the new facility. Support for the creation of new family-wage jobs at the terminal is pitted against the impact of the loaded trains and, for many environmentalists, the whole idea of sending U.S. coal to be burned in China and returned here as air pollution wafted across the Pacific. The railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe , was not present at the forum, and has generally kept an exceedingly low profile as the debate opens.

Gateway Pacific Terminal would be operated by international stevedoring company SSA Marine, of which a major stockholder is Goldman Sachs. The $400 million project would create 280 fulltime, permanent jobs, the company says. Although SSA touts the project as a multi-purpose facility, which could also load grain and potash, the immediate pressure is for coal to sell to China. Coal from the Powder River Basin is shipped through British Columbia ports, but there are no coal-export facilities on the West Coast of the U.S.; Longview has also been targeted as a potential coal port.

Gateway Pacific has worked quietly and effectively to neutralize the city's substantial "green" community by lining up political support in a series of small meetings and conversations. Craig Cole —civic leader, University of Washington regent and former county councilman —  was hired to work the community. Cole, a Democrat but also a businessman, has been instrumental in lining up leaders of both parties by stressing creation of family-wage jobs.

Neighborhood leaders, largely unaware of the proposal, have been slow to respond, and are only now beginning to react as plans for Cherry Point emerge. The railroad several months ago began running an estimated six trains a day (loaded and empty) through the community to Roberts Bank, the giant coal terminal south of Vancouver.

At last Thursday (Feb. 17) night's Whatcom Democrats forum, Mayor Pike presented a set of proposed "mitigations" he believes are necessary if the coal port is to gain support of the city. Pike stressed that there are significant downsides to the project that must be addressed if the project is to proceed. He said he would "demand the costs of mitigation come from those who profit directly, not our local citizens." Pike added, "Concerns about environmental justice, noise, and traffic impacts are legitimate and must be addressed. We have a long way to go and we have to be sure that whatever is done is 'done right.' "

SSA Spokesman Cole responded that Gateway Pacific will mitigate "as needed for measures related to the project," but he told Crosscut that offer would not extend to helping finance railroad improvements. He stressed that he did not speak for BNSF.

All of Pike's demands relate to the railroad, however; he said he wants to support the living-wage jobs the terminal will bring, but the overall project "may not be fully synchronized with our community values."

Pike's set of demands included 1) a railroad quiet zone from Chuckanut Bay south of the city to just north of its populated area, with installation of new crossing equipment; 2) access to the city waterfront that is not cut off for "unreasonable amounts of time"; 3) evaluation of shoring the banks along part of the rail line (Eldridge Avenue) that overlooks the tracks; and 4) use of covered gondolas rather than open hoppers to transport coal.

The cost of such mitigations would be substantial, and Pike has been meeting with BNSF officials to talk about cost and plans. The city and railroad agree that the main line should be relocated where it bisects the city's ambitious waterfront development site, but the matter of who pays the cost has not been settled. If access to Bellingham Bay from downtown is to be maintained, overpasses will be needed to prevent long trains from sealing off the area. Other mitigations will also be costly. Some federal funds, primarily tied to Amtrak improvements (Amtrak uses the BNSF tracks), are being sought.

The Washington Department of Transportation reports that from 1995 to 2005, some $608.7 million was spent to upgrade rail service between Portland and Vancouver, B.C., benefiting Amtrak, Sound Transit, and BNSF freight service. Most was some type of federal funding; the railroad contributed only $9.4 million, or 1.5 percent.

Earlier this month, BNSF announced a $3.5 billion capital program for 2011. The railroad stated that its "expansion and efficiency projects will be primarily focused on the mid-continent and coal routes to improve velocity and throughput capacity." No additional details were provided, but the announcement raises the possibility that Western Washington lines might be upgraded for the increased coal shipments. BNSF did not respond to requests for more details.

Cities in Whatcom County have little formal role in the permitting process for Gateway Pacific — none of the roughly two dozen regulatory hurdles the terminal must manage are controlled by Bellingham or other cities. Several, however, are in the domain of Whatcom County, giving Bellingham residents a substantial voice if not a legal standing; the city is about 40 percent of the county's population.

Pike, commenting to Crosscut, observed that much was open to negotiation as the process of permitting proceeds. The mayor has a background negotiating with BNSF, as a Washington Department of Transportation official managing the FAST Corridor project, a $500 million series of freight mobility projects between Everett and Tacoma. He knows the railroad and its negotiators, and hopes to wring out of the process changes that will lessen the impact of the coal trains. Even if Gateway Pacific were to fail the permitting process, the railroad will likely continue running coal trains to Canada, so rail issues will continue.

On Monday, Pike continued to hold out for his demands, but cautioned that his efforts might be in vain. "Railroads have a lot of power," Pike told the Bellingham Herald, "We don't have a lot of opportunity, at the end of the day, to control overly much what they do."

Bellingham was once a blue-collar town, with a pulp-and-paper mill, sawmills and numerous fish-processing plants. It still has a mix of industrial jobs, primarily marine-oriented, but in the last two or three decades has increasingly moved to jobs more closely linked to education, health care, and information technology. A politically liberal town, it is ringed by a politically conservative county, and the clash of politics has often been on the rate and nature of development. The Gateway Pacific application is only the latest pitting industrial development against the city's values of urban sustainability and a green economy.

Already, the amount of coal passing through Western Washington en route to Canadian coal ports has mushroomed in the past year. In 2009, only 268,390 short tons of coal went through the Seattle Customs District en route to British Columbia. In the first nine months of 2010, the tonnage was 2,632,929 or an increase of ten times the entire 2009 volume in only nine months of 2010. The average coal trains hauls about 16,000 tons, so it would take 165 loaded trains (and 165 return trips for the empty cars) to haul the 2.6 millions tons of coal delivered in the first nine months of 2010.

The coal was shipped on the BNSF line; the big terminal at Roberts Bank gets most of its coal on Canadian lines, but traffic has increased through Washington as Chinese demands for coal increased in 2010. The demand from China is so large that an expansion of a coal terminal is planned for Port Rupert, B.C., which is currently at capacity. Added coal traffic at Roberts Bank and at Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver is being driven by mines in Wyoming and Montana and Roberts Bank is considered to be "maxed out" in terms of new shipping contracts. Trains to Port Rupert may go through Spokane but are unlikely to use the Western Washington BNSF line.

The Canadian government is deeply involved in the coal-export field, leading to a series of environmental protests at the B.C. provincial capital in Victoria in recent weeks.

Conventional wisdom holds that BNSF is currently running about three full and three empty coal trains a day through Western Washington; Crosscut asked the railroad about that figure, but BNSF did not reply. The railroad also did not respond to questions regarding the number of trains needed to supply Gateway Pacific. The new terminal could double the number of coal trains now running; certainly, it will increase traffic.

In a sense, the issue of a bulk commodities terminal at Cherry Point, which could also handle wheat, potash and other dry bulk cargo, is less about the terminal itself than about the method of transportation and the global challenge of climate change.

Environmentalists argue that it makes no sense for the United States to ship massive amounts of coal for China to burn — sending toxic air across the Pacific to our West Coast — while at the same time we are closing domestic coal plants to clean the air.

Communities along the BNSF rail line, including the state's heavily populated Puget Sound region, may expect to see increased coal-train traffic for the indefinite future regardless of the fate of Cherry Point. But opening Cherry Point would sharply increase the coal traffic, perhaps doubling it if the terminal is running at capacity.

The impact on Amtrak, which already experiences delays to allow freight trains to pass, is unclear but certain. While coal-port developers, unions, environmentalists, and neighborhood activists argue, the railroad itself will play a critical but possibly silent hand.


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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.