Coal port proposal drives a big green wedge into Bellingham politics

UPDATED: Liberal/green Bellingham is pitted against a more conservative Whatcom County on the explosive issue of a giant coal port. Gov. Gregoire is being urged to step in and order the state Department of Ecology to displace Whatcom County on the environmental review.

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UPDATED: Liberal/green Bellingham is pitted against a more conservative Whatcom County on the explosive issue of a giant coal port. Gov. Gregoire is being urged to step in and order the state Department of Ecology to displace Whatcom County on the environmental review.

Politics has never been far beneath the surface of the simmering debate over building a new deep-water shipping terminal north of Bellingham to export coal to China, but an exchange of letters this week brought the community's divisions to a boil.

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike, who announced his opposition to the Gateway Pacific Terminal project a week ago, fired off a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday asking her to direct the state Department of Ecology to take over the role of lead agency for environmental studies at the Gateway Pacific site, in effect displacing Whatcom County from that role.

The county fired back an angry letter denouncing Pike's "erroneous and malicious statements," and asserting that county leaders had already asked Ecology to step into a lead position. "(M)onths ago," wrote Randall Watts, chief civil deputy prosecutor, in a letter to the governor, "Whatcom County requested Department of Ecology to join us as co-lead in the (environmental impact statement) for the Gateway Pacific Terminal Project." Later in his letter, however, he referred to "discussions" with Ecology rather than a request.

Ecology has not received a request to take a more expansive role. "In late April," said Ecology Spokesman Larry Altose, "(Whatcom) county staff informed Ecology that the county planned to submit a request to Ecology asking the department to take on a limited co-lead responsibility related to greenhouse gas analysis in the environmental impact statement [EIS]. The request would be based on our expertise in greenhouse gas issues and the statewide implications of greenhouse gases. We have not received a formal request from the county, but have continued to talk with the county about the feasibility of such an approach. The county has not asked Ecology to be co-lead on the entire EIS or to take over as lead agency. If and when such a request comes in, Ecology will evaluate it at that time."

Mayor Pike suggested to the governor that other communities in Washington be included in environmental impact studies of the terminal because of the impact of additional coal trains on those communities. An estimated 18 trains a day, both full and empty return cars and running more than a mile and a half in length, are expected to move through Washington state daily en route from the Powder River Basin coal fields to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. Currently about six trains a day —full and empty — ply the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line carrying coal to a terminal south of Vancouver, B.C. Together, the trains would total 24 daily if the terminal operated to its capacity of 48 million tons a year of coal exports.

Bringing community impacts into the environmental process would require a great deal more expertise and staff than Whatcom County has, Pike asserted, and that appears to have triggered the ire of the county. County Executive Pete Kremen, who retires this year, was angered when he learned of the mayor's letter. Despite the heated rhetoric, the city and county may not be totally alienated on the matter; Kremen has said he would support the study of impacts on Bellingham as well as at the terminal site, and Pike in his letter to the governor did not so much criticize the county as state the fact that the county is not equipped to deal with statewide issues.

Pike noted, "The interests of the state, administered by the Department of Transportation, Department of Ecology, Department of Natural Resources, the State Department of Fish and Wildlife and others, are beyond the scope of Whatcom County's authority and interests when it comes to imposing substantive mitigation. It appears the County does not have the resources, nor understandably, the expertise to conduct the comprehensive and cumulative impacts analysis necessary under (the State Environmental Policy Act) along the entire rail line corridor within the state, including impacts related to greenhouse gas emissions, health impacts from particulate emissions, effects on road maintenance, or traffic delays.

UPDATED: At mid-day Friday, three major opponents of the Gateway Pacific proposal sent a letter to Whatcom County, urging the county not to accept for study the GPT permit application because it asks the county to review a shoreline permit application as a "revision" of a 1997 permit rather than a new proposal. The county had indicated it might decide as early as June 24 whether the application should be treated as a revision, or a new permit should be filed.

The opponents — Climate Solutions, Sierra Club, and RE Sources — were represented in the letter by Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earth Justice. The way the permit application is treated is a critical decision, because a "revision" avoids much of the public involvement and environmental studies that a new permit would require. Hasselman wrote:

"The 1997 Permit authorizes shipment of 'grains, petroleum coke, iron ore, sulfur, potash, and wood chips.'  Coal is not an approved commodity under the 1997 Permit.  1997 Permit at 10.  The facility was expected to handle 8.2 million tons of these cargoes annually, necessitating around 140 ship calls annually. . . . Fourteen years later, (Gateway Pacific's) plans for the site have significantly changed.  . . .  It is now proposing a vastly expanded commodity terminal, with coal as its primary product.  A substantially reconfigured upland site will be developed in stages to handle about 54 million tons of material annually, the substantial majority of which will be coal, a commodity with significant risks, environmental impacts, and controversy.  At full operational capacity, PIT now anticipates 487 ship calls annually, including a significant percentage of 'Cape Sized' vessels-the largest class of cargo vessel in the world." END OF UPDATED MATERIAL

There is traditional tension between Bellingham, a politically liberal and very "green" community, and the more conservative rural and small-town parts of Whatcom County. The county council, which would be the ultimate decision-maker on the terminal, is often evenly divided on matters involving development and the environment. Currently the council appears to have a pro-development majority, but three members are on the November ballot. Kremen, stepping down from the executive office, has announced he will run to replace a pro-development councilman. Four candidates have filed to replace Kremen as executive.

At City Hall, Pike seeks a second term but faces an uphill battle against a popular former legislator, Kelli Linville, a Democrat defeated for re-election to a House seat in 2010. Linville has not taken a stand on the terminal but has made several anti-coal statements and appears to favor examination of off-site impacts.

If Gov. Gregoire opts to have Ecology play a larger role, the politics of her office will come into play, although many of the final decisions will be made after she leaves office in 2013. Gregoire has avoided endorsing or opposing the terminal, although she has stated she has no objection to shipping coal from Washington if environmental rules are followed. The governor has ties to the proponents: her former chief of staff, Cindy Zehnder, is a vice president of the big lobbying firm, Gordon Thomas Honeywell, which has the SSA account. Craig Cole of Bellingham, registered lobbyist for SSA Marine, is a contractor with GTH; he is also a Gregoire appointee to the University of Washington Board of Regents. Gregoire has received campaign contributions from SSA Marine, $8,300 since 2004; and $2,950 from the BNSF railroad since 2005.

In earlier legislative races, political contributions from parties involved in the proposed terminal have also gone to Linville and to Sen. Doug Erickson (R-Ferndale), who is now a candidate for Whatcom County executive. Linville received $16,370, the largest amount ($13,170) coming from Cole, a longtime friend. Erickson received $5,625, including $3,275 from BNSF. Neither Linville, Erickson, or Mayor Pike has reported contributions from Gateway Pacific parties thus far in 2011.

At the state level, Republican candidate Rob McKenna has received $6,000 from the BNSF railroad but nothing from terminal operators. Democratic big names have yet to announce, but terminal opponents will clearly be pushing Congressman Jay Inslee to take his climate-change leadership to the local level if he declares. Inslee will need to satisfy labor leaders, however; many are pushing for the terminal.

The terminal's operator, SSA Marine, headquartered in Seattle but operating shipping terminals worldwide, has opposed environmental studies beyond the terminal site, and has said it should not be responsible for mitigating the effects of railroad traffic beyond the terminal site. Although the proposed terminal has been studied for several months in closed-door meetings of state and local regulators and SSA officials, the filing earlier this month of a formal application for permits triggers a process to determine what matters will be studied. An important first step is deciding the parameter of environmental studies; the process is known as "scoping" and will take place this summer.

The scope of the environmental studies could turn the Gateway Pacific proposal into a national controversy, because of intense interest in the project on the part of environmental and sustainability organizations. Their concerns range from the global problem of burning coal, which is a leading contributor to global warming, to the fueling of Chinese plants that have taken jobs formerly held by American workers, to the health problems of coal dust and diesel emissions and the impact of noise and pollution from coal trains running through affected communities.

SSA Marine and a number of labor unions have responded that the project will produce up to 280 permanent jobs plus hundreds of temporary construction jobs, with spin-off benefits to Whatcom County businesses and tax revenues for the county and the Blaine School District. Proponents insist the terminal will be state-of-art in regard to controlling coal dust on site, and they assert that China will buy coal from other nations if the West Coast does not permit ports for export.

Bellingham, because of its reputation for livability and environmental concern, has become a focus for what is a building national movement, but the issue is also beginning to attract attention in other communities along the route of the BNSF, as the trains enter Washington at Spokane, reach the Columbia River at Tri-Cities and move down the Columbia Gorge before turning north at Vancouver to run through Kalama, Kelso-Longview, Centralia, Tacoma, Seattle, Edmonds, Everett, and Mount Vernon as well as small towns. These communities will receive the impact of the train traffic but not the jobs and added taxes that would go to Whatcom County.

Environmentalists are already organized in the Portland and Longview areas against a proposed coal terminal at Longview; Millennium Coal applied for a permit and Cowlitz County granted a shoreline permit but the process was aborted when opponents discovered that Arch intended to export much more coal than the application stated. The Millennium proposal remains in limbo, and Millennium and other coal companies are looking for other ports in Oregon and Washington. Peabody Coal, the nation's largest miner, has agreed to ship at least 24 million tons a year if the Gateway Pacific Terminal is built near Bellingham. There is no coal terminal on the Pacific Coast south of British Columbia; B.C. has three terminals.


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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.