Bellingham's first debate on coal-for-China project reflects growing tensions

Bellingham residents are beginning to worry about the prospect of giant trains continually running along the tracks after coming through Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett.

Bellingham residents are beginning to worry about the prospect of giant trains continually running along the tracks after coming through Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett.

The first public debate on the construction of a giant coal-shipping terminal north of Bellingham made it quite clear that opposing forces are, well, like trains running on separate tracks, with increasing frustrations on all sides.

Developers of the proposed $400 million project at Cherry Point north of Bellingham talk about jobs — up to 213 to 280 permanent longshore jobs.

Opponents, an increasing segment of the city, want to talk about the impact of an additional 18 to 20 trains every day, a mile-and-a-half long and very loud and heavy, running through some of the city's most valuable property.

The twain did not meet Wednesday as SSA Marine, the developer for Gateway Pacific, faced off with ReSources for Sustainable Communities in an hour-long session at Bellingham City Club. An audience of nearly 400, the hall's capacity, reflected rising interest in an issue that essentially ran under the public's radar for months.

What is frustrating for proponents, opponents, and the community in particular is the fact that the coal-terminal project itself is less controversial (although it does face serious opposition on environmental grounds) than the idea of routing so many huge trains through the city.

This fact puts in particular focus a bureaucratic process called "scoping," a term that has nothing to do with the use of telescopes and means that someone must set the limits (or scope) of the environmental studies that will determine if the project is to be built and, if built, the terms it must meet.

At the heart of the matter is whether these studies, to be conducted by Whatcom County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and several state agencies, will be limited to SSA's thousand-acre industrial site or will be expanded to include community impacts of the coal trains servicing the project.

SSA Marine has stated several times that it believes only the industrial site should be subject to studies; Bellingham opponents insist that community impacts are critical. No middle ground appeared Wednesday; SSA was asked again about scoping but replied only that it would respond to whatever scoping plan is adopted. ReSources backs expansion of the process. Most of the questions addressed from the audience dealt with coal trains rather than the site itself.

When SSA Marine proposed earlier developments, including a 1992 request that generated a shoreline permit later litigated and the subject of further negotiations, coal was not a target commodity — the company cited wheat and potash, and several smaller agricultural commodities for a much smaller project. But the skyrocketing demand from China for millions of tons of coal caused it to become the lead commodity in current applications; an estimated 88 percent of the capacity of 52 million tons a year in shipping would be coal.

This emphasis on coal, in turn, generates the huge and frequent coal trains that worry many in Bellingham, and a big increase in the huge cargo ships that would carry the coal to China. Fears of ship collisions with oil tankers that now service two refineries adjacent to the SSA site were expressed at the forum, and brought assurances from SSA Marine that shipping conflicts would be carefully regulated.

An audience member pointedly asked how the final decision would be made, and by whom, concluding, "Do we get a vote?" The answer was in the negative, but materials placed on tables by SSA Marine, ReSources and another opposition group, Communitywise Bellingham, left no doubt that the public and its paid bureaucrats will be lobbied heavily over the next several weeks. SSA Marine has already spent thousands in newspaper advertising and saturation coverage of local radio; opponents are ramping up plans of their own.

Knowledgeable sources believe that the scoping process will probably go through June before public hearings (but no vote) are scheduled and the final scope is determined.

What is ultimately decided in Bellingham will affect much of the state because the Burlington Northern Santa Fe route to bring coal from the Powder River basin in Wyoming runs down the Columbia River to Vancouver and takes a sharp north turn to run through most of the major cities west of the Cascades: Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and points between all the way to the terminal north of Bellingham. BNSF is already running six trains a day (both empty and full) on that route for coal destined to Roberts Bank south of Vancouver, B.C.; those trains would likely be continued.

The increased train traffic has already had an impact on Amtrak, which uses the same tracks for most of its route through Washington. The exact nature of the impact from the SSA Marine proposal is uncertain and an additional concern that some want included in the scope of the reviews.


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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.