Coal-for-China debate burns its way into Bellingham's mayor race

Update: Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike today announced his opposition to plans for a coal port near the city. Earlier in the week, the  growing debate over the global warming implications of shipping coal to China brought big turnouts to meetings there.

Crosscut archive image.

The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

Update: Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike today announced his opposition to plans for a coal port near the city. Earlier in the week, the  growing debate over the global warming implications of shipping coal to China brought big turnouts to meetings there.

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike said Friday (June 3) that he will work to oppose a bulk shipping terminal at Cherry Point north of the city that plans to export some 48 million tons of coal a year to China. Pike commented after a pair of public meetings this week that brought out large-scale opposition to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Although Pike has stated in the past that he wants environmental review of the $500 million project to go beyond the terminal site and include Bellingham and other impacted communities, his statement moves beyond that stated concern to outright opposition to the project as it is now planned. It is the heavy reliance on coal — nearly 90 percent of planned exports — and the resultant rail traffic that focuses his concerns.

Pike's concern about coal and rail impacts is echoed by his chief opponent in the fall mayoral election, former state Rep. Kelli Linville, who lives with her family some 75 yards from the main switching yard in Bellingham. Linville said she has always been an opponent of burning coal and supported the state's "no coal" policies; she also raises concerns about additional rail traffic.

She said, however, that she will wait for the public process to comment at an official on-the-record public hearing, rather than state her final position now. "I support the public process; let it work its way through," she told Crosscut. She noted that it would be very difficult for terminal developers to mitigate impacts to local communities, which could include major upgrades to rail crossings and other improvements.

The difference between Pike and Linville can be boiled down to timing and emphasis. Pike on Feb. 28 stated that he would await the formal process before taking a firm position on the coal port; Linville has maintained that stance throughout.

Pike said Friday he simply sees no chance that Gateway Pacific, to be operated by SSA Marine and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, which would transport the coal from the Powder River Basin to Cherry Point, are willing to consider helping local communities mitigate the considerable impact of the coal shipments.

"I hoped they would make a commitment to provide meaningful mitigations or — even better — a willingness consider other commodities, and not rely exclusively on coal exports for the terminal's financial engine," Pike said.

"Instead, these proponents brought denial of any potential harms and blatant defiance that they should change their plans in any way. In fact, it has become public knowledge that they have signed a multi-year deal with Montana's Peabody Coal to ship at least 24 million tons of coal from our sensitive shores as their major focus of business for the foreseeable future.

"That is not a future that I want to see. By any calculation, the proposed coal-dependent terminal at Cherry Point does not add up. I will, therefore, work with citizen groups, other elected officials, businesses and the health care community to oppose the current plan for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal."

Linville said she was in agreement with Pike on the matter of mitigating the impact of the coal shipments, and is also concerned that coal is to be the major export from the terminal.

Commenting to The Bellingham Herald in May, Linville noted that she had supported an earlier plan to build an export terminal at Cherry Point, but the 1992 project did not mention exporting coal. "I did not support a dedicated coal port," she said. "I'm opposed to a single-purpose port. I support a final pier up there that supports multiple exports."

She also said she fought for steps to phase out coal-fired power in this state while she was a legislator. "I don't support coal-burning," she said. "I would much rather be exporting clean energy technology to China. ... We should be investing in what we want to have happen, instead of fighting what we don't want to have happen."

The third candidate in the mayor's race, Clayton Petree, was also quoted in the Herald story as waiting for more information before deciding on the terminal. "This is a time to listen, learn, and participate — not leap one way or another based on speculation about something we don't yet know enough about," Petree said. "In this case, the boldest approach is caution." He expressed particular concern about the impact on the city's planned waterfront development.

Although Bellingham is the largest city in Whatcom County, it will be the Whatcom County Commission that will ultimately decide the fate of applications for a shoreline permit and a final project permit. Formal applications have yet to be filed by SSA Marine, although preliminary study has already begun by county, state and federal agencies. When the applications are filed, the formal process of taking public testimony will begin, with early emphasis on setting the scope of the review process.

Scoping, as the procedure is called, determines if the environmental studies will be limited to the terminal site or expanded to include impacts on Bellingham and other communities. Rail traffic drawn by the site-about 18 additional trains of more than a mile in length-will carry coal and return empties from Gateway Pacific at full capacity of the planned terminal. Several communities, including Bellingham and Ferndale in Whatcom County, are bisected by the tracks.

Friday's statements by Pike and Linville followed an intense week on the part of coalport opponents, with two large gatherings Tuesday and Wednesday night, bringing out some heated rhetoric against the Gateway Pacific proposal and the idea of exporting coal in general. The week began in Fairhaven's Village Green, where a nationally known opponent of coal took the stage before a large and enthusiastic crowd.

"This is the perfect place for this fight," environmental author and global-warming warrior Bill McKibben told a crowd of nearly 1,000 Tuesday (May 31) in Bellingham, kicking off two days of events in a community many regard as the "greenest" in the state.

McKibben, whose 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first popular-press warning of the approach of global warming, came to Bellingham to stir what has been a relatively low-key opposition to SSA Marine's proposal to build a $500 million export facility at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. It would export up to 48 million tons of coal annually to China, to be burned powering electrical plants there, and 6 million tons of other undetermined bulk commodities.

Enthusiasm stirred by McKibben and organized largely by Re Sources, a local sustainability organization, resulted in 800 signatures on petitions to elected officials calling for community impacts to be included in environmental impact studies for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. SSA has opposed expanding the studies beyond borders of the site, which could mean the project operators would be required to mitigate the effects of additional trains and other off-site impacts.

The tide of opposition spilled over to a Wednesday community forum called by Mayor Pike, as about 300 people packed a municipal courtroom and another 200 waited outside to address Pike regarding their concerns about the project. The mayor has said he wants community impact to be considered in the environmental reviews.

The forums marked a change in the tenor of the battle for the export terminal. SSA Marine last fall started a quiet campaign to line up political support for the plan, and by the time Bellingham residents were aware the effort was afoot, the project had lined up a group of small-town mayors, Congressman Rick Larsen, three legislators, the local Chamber of Commerce, and the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council. Leading the effort was Craig Cole, a former county councilman and retired businessman with strong community connections.

Re Sources and some environmental leaders began organizing early this year, focusing their efforts on coal as the chief export for the terminal. McKibben emphasized the role of coal in the Cherry Point plan Tuesday, referring to coal as "the most dangerous substance on the planet" and urging his Bellingham audience to play a key role in combating climate change.

"Climate change is one of the first chances we have ever had to find out if we really are all brothers and sisters," McKibben said of the global movement to combat global warming. Bellingham, because of its reputation for sustainability and support for a green economy, is an ideal place to combat coal mining and exports, he stated.

While Whatcom County will prepare the crucial final project permit, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the shoreline permit, and several state agencies are involved in preparing environmental data for those permits. Bellingham is not a direct player in the process, but it is about 40 percent of the county's population.

Mayor Pike, mindful of the city's role (or lack of a role), asked his Wednesday night forum to tell him what community impacts should be studied in the process, beyond those that will be examined on the Gateway Pacific site. He got an earful, as about 50 people approached the microphones to express concerns.

Nearly all of the concerns focused on coal as the major export commodity, and most told Pike that health issues from breathing coal dust and diesel fumes from added coal trains are their major worries. Sara Mostad, a Bellingham physician, presented a petition with the names of 80 local doctors, and said medical research shows a clear danger to air and water quality from coal dust, including an impact on asthma and other respiratory issues. Her testimony was seconded by a woman who described herself as a lung cancer survivor living near the railroad tracks.

The majority of those speaking appeared to be solidly against exporting coal from Cherry Point under any circumstances, echoing McKibben's call the previous night. Dana Lyons of Bellingham called for "civil disobedience in every town along the route" if necessary to halt the coal trains. He drew loud cheers from the crowd, despite admonitions against applause.

While the evening evoked more applause for project opponents, labor leader David Warren, recently retired as head of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, charged opponents with fear-mongering and distortions, and accused Re Sources of refusing to meet with labor leaders. "Our relationship is over," Warren stated heatedly, "We're going to fight for these jobs."

When Warren concluded, "let me express my disappointment at how quickly the people of this community can turn their backs on the unemployed," he drew catcalls from the audience. Warren and two other labor representatives were the only speakers defending the project; several other speakers identified themselves as union members before blasting the project and calling for jobs that did no harm the environment.

Although health concerns were the predominant worry at the forum, several of the speakers addressed the impact of more large trains on the economy and livability of the community. Six coal trains of about a mile and a half in length currently run through Bellingham en route to Roberts Bank south of Vancouver; half are full, the others are returning empty cars to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Gateway Pacific, in full operation, would add about 18 trains a day, full and empty, to the six already running, and the trains are expected to be longer and heavier than current trains.

In a previous statement of concern, Mayor Pike cited the impact of the added trains to the city's ambitious plans to remake a former mill site into a new mix of business, office, and residential developments on the city's waterfront. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks run through the development site. Speakers also cited the impact on popular parks in the city and along Chuckanut Drive, where train tracks run through or alongside the facilities.

Although most of the speakers were from Bellingham, several spoke from Ferndale, a smaller community closer to Cherry Point, where railroad traffic bisects the city; and also from rural communities opposing any plan to shift coal traffic to an alternate rail line running from Burlington north to Sumas.

Wednesday night's forum played no formal role in the review process, other than to show community opposition to the project and perhaps provide some cover for leaders who may want to oppose the terminal but are concerned about organized labor's charge that they oppose high-wage jobs. SSA Marine says it will provide about 280 full-time jobs when the terminal is built to capacity, plus temporary construction jobs building the facility. Whatcom County has an unemployment rate above the state average, and local project backers have cited jobs as their primary argument for building the terminal.

Behind the scenes, politics will heat up in coming months and could be crucial to a final outcome. In addition to the city mayoral race, County Executive Pete Kremen is stepping down, opening that critical position for a fall vote. Thus far, only conservatives from outside Bellingham have shown an interest in filing for the position; project opponents have yet to get a candidate into the race. Three county council members are also up this year. Ultimately, the county council, now with a pro-development majority, will join the Executive in deciding the key project permit.

That decision could be two years down the line; SSA Marine has yet to file a formal permit application, although state and county agencies are already working on preliminary papers. A team of environmental specialists, organized as a Multi-Agency Permit Team (MAP), working out of the governor's office, has been meeting behind closed doors since November, reviewing SSA Marine's proposals. The MAP team has posted documents from its considerations, but participation has been limited to representatives of eight state, local, and federal agencies plus Gateway Pacific. No outside organizations have been allowed to attend the sessions. This prompted an April 27 letter to the MAP team from Bellingham environmental lawyers Barbara Dykes and Tom Erlichman, who represent some private businesses and property owners in Whatcom County.

Their letter concluded: "A student of the . . . process might conclude, sadly, that the exercise lacks perspective and grounding in reality, when it excludes the majority of affected jurisdictions, businesses, property owners, and citizens along the affected transportation corridor. Public confidence can be restored in the (MAP) review if it is quickly revised to include a broader base, allowing these affected entities to participate in the discussion about project design, impacts, and scope of agency review to come. Without that change, this post-application . . . review process behind closed doors seems skewed in favor of the applicant. The affected public is left with the impression that the review is well underway, while they are being left outside as showpieces in an agency environmental review process that is already pre-determined in many important respects."

Formal hearings to determine the scope of the environmental studies, including the issue of including communities distant from the site and impacted primarily by rail traffic, will await Gateway Pacific's formal permit application, expected within the next several weeks.

In Bellingham at least, the informal hearings have begun and the temperature is rising. Activists expect to organize in several other western Washington communities that would be impacted by rail traffic, since the coal trains would move up the state from Vancouver to Ferndale.


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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.