Bellingham: Back to coal with planned shipping terminal?

The plan for Cherry Point envisions a facility twice the size of the largest coal-shipping terminal on the West Coast, Westshore in Vancouver, B.C.

Crosscut archive image.

The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

The plan for Cherry Point envisions a facility twice the size of the largest coal-shipping terminal on the West Coast, Westshore in Vancouver, B.C.

Long before it became a university town and retirement mecca, Bellingham was a coal town. For about a hundred years they mined coal in a place known today by its parks, art, and music and its repeated appearances on meaningless “best places” lists in frothy magazines.

Critics of a huge shipping port, proposed for the Whatcom County shore a few miles north of Bellingham, worry that the city is headed back to its coal-town days. Not by mining this time, but by trainload after open trainload of coal from Montana and Wyoming, rolling through Bellingham around the clock, destined for China.

SSA Marine, one of the two or three largest seaport builders and operators in the world, filed permit applications on Monday (Feb. 28) to build a huge bulk-commodity shipping port at Cherry Point, on a spectacularly verdant and scenic coast a few miles north of Bellingham. The dimensions of the port, called Gateway Pacific Terminal, are astounding:

  • Capacity for shipping 48 million tons of coal per year, along with another 8 million tons of “closed storage” commodities such as wheat and potash.
  •  A rail system to accommodate 125-car coal trains, expanding to 150-car trains over time.
  • A conveyor system to move coal 1,250 feet, from landside storage areas directly to the holds of the ships.
  • An industrial site of 1,100 acres, of which, the company promises, nearly half will remain permanently natural.

If it succeeds, SSA will have a port nearly twice the size of Westshore Terminals at Vancouver, B.C., currently the largest dry bulk facility on the West Coast of North and South America; coal-dust pollution has created citizen unrest for miles downwind. In addition, a rival port builder from Australia hopes to create an 80 million-ton terminal at Longview.

SSA’s filing followed an announcement by the nation's largest coal producer, Peabody Energy, that it will partner with SSA to export at least 24 million tons of coal annually for the life of the Cherry Point terminal. This is coal originating in the Powder River Basin of the upper plains and hauled to Cherry Point by Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Not only does SSA have its coal supplier at hand, the company has lined up impressive support in and out of government. Gov. Gregoire “wants to move the project forward," state Commerce Director Rogers Weed told reporters at a Cherry Point gathering last October. He said that the governor “hopes to achieve big increases in exports of Washington grain,” and the Gateway terminal would mean a big boost in port capacity. The Bellingham Herald account also said Gregoire had asked her state agency heads to streamline the regulatory process to help the project along. (The month before Weeds's statement, the governor made a stop in Vietnam, where she helped to celebrate a huge SSA terminal.)

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, who represents Whatcom County in Congress, has endorsed the project. “Exports are a sure fire way to get our economy moving,” he said. Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike offered a qualified endorsement. He likes it, but only if the impacts — including increased train traffic though the city — are controlled without local taxpayers footing the bill.

The Bellingham Herald took a somewhat belligerent stand in favor of the project, accusing those it calls “the anti-development community” of “grandstanding and a penchant for filing law suits.”

Whatcom County Labor Council head Dave Warren came to Monday’s news conference to tout the new port as the biggest of big deals in a region where living-wage industrial jobs are sighted about as commonly as the 7-foot Diatryma bird whose fossil foot print is displayed at Bellingham’s Western Washington University.

“This is going to be a 100 percent union project that uses local labor: an opportunity for living-wage jobs that is extraordinary in our community,” Warren said.

SSA says the initial construction work could generate the equivalent of 3,500 direct jobs, with another 4,800 trickle-down jobs developed through “service purchases and employee spending.” Long-term, the company cites preliminary estimates of 430 well-paid union jobs, primarily among longshoremen.

Before it can begin building, SSA needs approval of federal and state environmental agencies. They’ll conduct studies and public hearings on the environmental impact of the giant project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead agency for studying impacts regulated by the federal government. Whatcom County will lead the State Environmental Protection Act process. SSA Vice President Bob Watters says the company expects to complete the impact statements, meet environmental requirements, and have its permits by December of next year; the terminal would be ready to ship coal by 2015.

A non-profit environmental education organization known as RE Sources for Sustainable Communities has emerged as the leading questioner of economic and environmental pronouncements relating to the terminal. On the day following the port builder’s announcement, RE Sources Executive Director Bob Ferris and Project Manager Matt Krogh took aim at SSA’s expectations.

The partnership with Peabody is “a little like someone picking out china patterns before the end of the first date,” Ferris said in a Tuesday news release. “SSA will find that this is not speed dating, and that Bellingham and Whatcom County hold their own virtue in high regard.”

“This is like a tale of two Bellinghams,” Krogh said, “one reaching for a sustainable, clean future, the other clawing its way to the past.”

Ferris pointed to problems at Vancouver’s Westshore Terminal, where fine dust from stored coal “has depleted oxygen in nearshore habitats and coated boats more than five miles to the southeast, in Point Roberts.”

SSA’s Bob Watters acknowledges the dust problems at Westshore, but says wind patterns are different at Cherry Point. “Westshore stores its coal right at the water,” he told Crosscut. “We’ll be storing on land, with acres and acres of trees to buffer the wind.”

There’s at least one delicate environmental issue at Cherry Point that the Canadian coal shippers don’t have to deal with: a threatened and carefully stewarded herring population, fish that Washington state agencies have been trying to protect for at least 20 years. The herring is critical food for the endangered spring Chinook salmon, which in turn is prime food for Puget Sound orcas. Concerns over the herring’s dwindling population contributed to blocking a succession of proposed industrial schemes at the same Cherry Point site, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Herring protection, along with concerns for Dungeness crab and migrating salmon, led to years of difficult negotiations between representatives of SSA, state fish and wildlife officials, and environmental organizations. They fought over the size, design, and positioning of the half-mile long wharf SSA plans to build. In a settlement agreed to 11 years ago, SSA agreed to construct the pier in such a way as to minimize damage to eelgrass beds, which provide essential hatching and rearing habitat for the herring. It may be repositioned again before Fish and Wildlife biologists will approve it.

As part of the same settlement, the company agreed to conduct a number of benchmark studies of the Cherry Point aquatic environment. It has done none of them but will begin soon, Watters told Crosscut.

Another political-legal-environmental overlay complicates development at the terminal site. The state Department of Natural Resources administers the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, put in place by then-Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher on her way out of office in 2000. Ten years later, current Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark initiated the first management plan for the reserve. It does not contemplate dust from a mammoth coal shipping terminal blowing onto the eel grass beds. Nowhere in the plan will you find the word “coal.”

Although the plan was completed only last November, DNR seems not to have known that the fish in its Aquatic Reserve would be living fin to fin with a huge coal terminal. DNR public affairs director Bryan Flint says his agency is unlikely to try to amend the management plan, but will rely on other state agencies to prevent coal-dust-related fishery problems. “Our leverage is with the lease,” Flint told Crosscut. “We won’t agree to any lease of the tidelands until they (SSA) have all the permits in hand."

But the most potent public criticism of the plan seems likely to center on coal-train traffic through Bellingham, to serve a feverish Asian market for American coal. Bob Watters says SSA doesn’t know how many coal trains currently pass through Bellingham in a day. Those are Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s numbers, Watters says, and BN isn’t telling. But Craig Cole, a Bellingham businessman hired by SSA as a public affairs consultant, says any increase in trains as a result of the coal port will only return traffic to what was normal in Bellingham when Georgia Pacific’s paper mill was still operating on the waterfront and Canadian lumber in great amounts was being shipped to California.

SSA’s Monday news release says the terminal will accommodate “one to nine” trains a day, of 125 to 150 cars per train. That’s 18 additional trips daily through Bellingham — and the slide-prone Chuckanut shore, Mount Vernon, Everett, Edmonds, and points south and east — on top of those that already haul other type of freight through town several times a day and will continue to do so. RE Sources’ Bob Ferris predicts coal trains of 1.5 miles in length, closing Bellingham’s five BNSF crossings for as long as it takes a 150-car train traveling at approximately 10 miles an hour to pass a railroad crossing.

Then there’s the problem of coal-train dust. Burlington Northern’s own research finds that open coal cars lose 500 pounds to a ton of coal per car in transit. Coal dust has become such a problem in the high plains coal country that it weakens the ballast holding the tracks in place. Ferris and Krogh break it down into quantities of dust per foot and contend that in shipping a mere 25 million tons per year, the coal trains will spread 250 pounds of coal dust per linear foot of rail; at 54 million tons that loss would reach 600 pounds per foot.

But not around here, Watters says. It’s mostly a problem close to the mines. “They believe most of it blows away in the first 100 miles or so,” he told Crosscut. Anyway, Watters suggests, those are problems to take up with the railroad. SSA will provide the export terminal, but bringing the coal out here is BNSF’s responsibility, along with its attendant pollution.

Expect to hear passionate debate on that point when the Army Corps and Whatcom County begin the “scoping” hearings to determine what should be included in the environmental impact statement for the terminal. If coal trains come to dominate Bellingham (and the other towns along the route) because of the gigantic coal port, does that need to be examined in the environmental impact statement?

Watters doesn’t think it should: “I believe our position would be that the DEIS should relate to the terminal itself, and those things we can mitigate. Whatever the impact of the train traffic, that’s not something we can do anything about. “

We asked Faith Lumsden, who heads the Office of Regulatory Assistance in Gov. Gregoire’s office: Is it reasonable that the impact of additional trains, creating noise, tying up traffic, and potentially releasing coal dust into the air would be part of the environmental studies for the terminal?

“That’s going to be up to the Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County,” she said. “ They’re the lead agencies. But environmental impact studies often include indirect as well as direct impacts. Train traffic is most certainly an indirect impact of operating the terminal.”

Above and beyond all of the environmental specifics, there’s the kind of community Bellingham has become. It's transformed itself from a heavy-industry city to one that has won national attention for the hundreds of small, locally owned, and sustainably green businesses that thrive around the Bay, even in the toughest of economic times. It’s a world away from the gritty days of the 1950’s, when you could still buy a truck load of coal from the mine on Northwest Avenue just over a mile from downtown Bellingham.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.