McGinn warns of Seattle impacts if Bellingham coal terminal is built

Mayor Mike McGinn voiced traffic and pollution concerns about a plan to ship coal to China from a port proposed for construction north of Bellingham. 

Mayor Mike McGinn voiced traffic and pollution concerns about a plan to ship coal to China from a port proposed for construction north of Bellingham. 

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn took another step Monday toward opposing a proposed coal shipping terminal that mining and shipping interests want to build at Cherry Point, on the Whatcom County shoreline just below the Canadian border.

McGinn issued a statement warning of serious environmental damage in Seattle if the terminal were to operate as planned.  “The impacts of the Gateway Pacific Terminal are not confined to Bellingham,” McGinn said in a July 18 statement.   “Seattle would experience nine 1.5 mile-long trains of coal every day through our waterfront, with potentially significant impacts on traffic, air quality and water quality.”

McGinn earlier joined Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike in a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire asking the Department of Ecology to take the lead in examining the damaging effects of  round-the-clock coal shipping across the state. Ecology has said it would do so.

Bellevue-based SSA Marine, a privately held company believed to be the world’s largest builder and operator of seaports, wants to create a port at Cherry Point capable of shipping 48 million metric tons of coal per year to Asian ports, primarily China.  The nation’s largest coal company, Peabody Coal, has already contracted with SSA to ship 24 million metric tons from its mining operations on public lands in Wyoming and Montana.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe would haul the coal from the high plains through Spokane to the Columbia River and north through Vancouver, Longview, Tacoma, Kent, Seattle, Edmonds, Everett, Mount Vernon, and Bellingham. BNSF would run coal trains as long as 150 cars 18 times a day  (nine full of coal and nine empty) to and from the deepwater port to be built at Cherry Point, about a dozen miles north of Bellingham.

McGinn’s statement included praise for Gov. Gregoire and the Washington Department of Ecology for agreeing that Ecology will become co-leader  in studying the environmental impact of the project, along with Whatcom County.  Bellingham’s Mayor Pike had earlier written the governor suggesting that Whatcom County lacked the resources and the objectivity to represent the state’s interests in setting the outlines of the impact study and completing it. Copies of Pike’s letter to the governor went to more than two dozen mayors along the BNSF route, asking them to sign his request to have Ecology lead the impact study.

The Pike letter stirred an angry response from Whatcom County's civil deputy prosecuting attorney, Randall Watts. He accused the mayor of  “political grandstanding and blatant disrespect for Whatcom County,” and called Pike’s letter to Gregoire “erroneous and malicious,” in its suggestion that Whatcom County lacked the ability to act as lead agency on the environmental review. At the same time, however, Watts agreed that the Department of Ecology should join the county as co-lead agency on the hotly controversial decision.

In his statement Monday, McGinn said he will “continue to support (Pike’s) position for a robust review of the environmental and economic impacts this project has across Washington State.”

The Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce, Whatcom County Labor Council, and Whatcom County Democrats all have endorsed the terminal project, as have the Bellingham Herald and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen.  They and SSA corporate officials maintain that the shipping terminal would provide more than 2,000 jobs during its construction phase and more than 200 long-term, unionized living-wage longshoremen’s jobs in a region where unemployment is running around 9.5 percent. 

Through much of 2010, SSA Marine publicly advanced the port as a grain and fertilizer terminal shipping some 8 million tons of cargo per year. In its official permit filings this past winter, the company revealed that more than 80 percent of its cargo would be coal destined for China, and that the coal would be underway years before other cargo. Two Bellingham organizations — ReSources for Sustainable Communities and CommunityWise Bellingham — quickly organized campaigns raising environmental and economic issues. The proposed facility would be twice the size of the largest coal shipping terminal on North America's West Coast, Westshore in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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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.