Senators seek wide review of proposal for shipping coal to China

The mostly Democratic state senators want consideration of the effects on communities along the rail route to the proposed terminal near Bellingham.

The mostly Democratic state senators want consideration of the effects on communities along the rail route to the proposed terminal near Bellingham.

Thirteen state senators from northwest counties have signed a letter to Washington State Department of Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant and Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen asking that their agencies include a sweeping review of environmental and economic impacts of a proposed coal-export terminal, as the agencies conduct studies of terminal applications.

The senators, all but one a Democrat, urged, "It is important that the formal evaluation of the project included the associated impacts to the communities and not just impacts at the actual site."

The site, a deep-water port at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, is proposed as an export terminal by SSA Marine, a major international terminal operator based in Seattle. Gateway Pacific Terminal would export up to 54 million tons of bulk commodities a year, and company officials have stated that about 48 million tons would be coal. The company has said it believes environmental and other studies should be limited to the actual thousand-acre site.

Senators, including Ways and Means Committe Chair Ed Murray of Seattle, say they are concerned about the impact of increased rail traffic on the BNSF railroad as the coal is transported from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, through Spokane, the Columbia River Gorge, and north through Western Washington to Cherry Point. An increase of 18 unit trains a day is expected when the terminal is fully operational; at present six coal trains a day go to and from a coal export terminal in British Columbia. The coal is shipped to Asia on large freighters.

The only Republican signing the letter, Dan Swecker, represents Lewis and Thurston counties, which would see increased rail traffic if the terminal is built. Others on the list include Democrats Kevin Ranker, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Karen Fraser, Nick Harper, Debbie Regala, Steve Conway, Karen Keiser, Sharon Nelson, Paull Shin, Adam Kine, and Maralyn Chase. The senator who represents the GPT site, Republican Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, is running for Whatcom County executive (Kremen is leaving after several terms but is a candidate for the County Council). Ericksen has been an outspoken advocate of the terminal.

Sturdevant and Kremen are targeted because Ecology and Whatcom County, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will conduct reviews of the terminal applications, which are expected to be filed in the next three months. Earlier applications were rejected by the county and returned to SSA Marine for re-filing. When papers are filed, a process known as "scoping" begins, including a series of meetings to determine the scope of the environmental and other reviews. The process is critical because if it includes the sort of off-site reviews sought by the 13 senators and terminal opponents, the studies will take additional time and bring in testimony well beyond the proposed site.

"Many have expressed a concern for public safety and impacts to our quality of life posed by additional rail runs through our communities each day. Others have cited worries about the impact these runs will have on local businesses," the senators wrote. "Still others have questioned why we would choose to promote the use of coal as a fuel source anywhere, whether here at home or across the ocean. Lastly, we have heard from many regarding the impact to public health from increased particulate matter as a result of the use of diesel fuel on rail runs."

This story has changed since it first appeared.


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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.