Coal port advocates narrow the range of environmental impacts

Gateway Pacific Terminals, the entity behind Bellingham's proposed Cherry Point coal port, is moving ahead with permitting but dodging opponents pushing for an environmental review covering a wider geography. Another battle heats up over economic impacts and displaced jobs.

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The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

Gateway Pacific Terminals, the entity behind Bellingham's proposed Cherry Point coal port, is moving ahead with permitting but dodging opponents pushing for an environmental review covering a wider geography. Another battle heats up over economic impacts and displaced jobs.

Gateway Pacific Terminals filed several hundred pages of documents late Monday with Whatcom County planners, setting in motion the formal processes that could result in the nation's largest coal-exporting terminal on a 1,200-acre deepwater site at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.

SSA Marine of Seattle, the developer of the proposed terminal, which would be capable of exporting up to 54 million tons of coal and other commodities at full buildout, had its applications rejected by the county nine months ago. This week's filing was the result of months of working with county, state, and federal agencies to design documents that will pass muster. If they are accepted, a process known as scoping will begin next month to determine the extent of the environmental review of the project

Some 23 separate permits and authorizations must be obtained from at least nine local, state, and federal agencies before construction can begin on the projet. Though SSA Marine hopes to begin operating in 2016, critics predict a longer time frame. Whatcom County plans to post the entire set of documents online. In the meantime, the Bellingham Herald has posted a link to the operative document.

The documents filed Monday make it clear that Gateway Pacific wants to avoid environmental studies away from its Cherry Point site. Discussions of transportation issues do not include railroad traffic away from the immediate site with its short spur line to serve the terminal, or the impact of adding nearly a thousand massive ships to the shipping lanes of the San Juan Islands.

The Cherry Point terminal is particularly sought-after because of its 80-foot channel, which requires no dredging and can handle shipping's massive Capesize ships, so large they cannot pass through the Panama Canal. About a third of the coal ships expected would be Capesize, the document projects; the others would be Panamax, somewhat smaller vessels.

The new ships would enter either through Haro or Rosario straits, which already carries heavy traffic from Vancover container and coal ports, as well as crude-oil tankers serving refineries at Cherry Point and Anacortes. More ships would be needed to service proposed oil-export ports at northern British Columbia ports. Coal ships are not under the same strict regulations that govern oil tankers.

The impacts of this and other expected transportation burdens have fired opposition in communities in the islands and along the long rail route through Washington state. A rally was scheduled Tuesday night in Bellingham by Power Past Coal, a joint venture of several opposition groups and headed by the Sierra Club, Climate Solutions, and ReSources, a Bellingham-based sustainability organization.

The nine months since SSA's original documents were rejected have seen a buildup of political action by both sides. The issue pits SSA Marine's claims of jobs and tax revenues against potential job losses, global concerns over climate change from coal-burning, community impact from a major increase in rail and shipping traffic, and health concerns related to coal dust and diesel fumes.

For its part, SSA has hired canvassers to go door-to-door in Whatcom County promoting the benefits of the terminal. The company has also produced a new promotional video featuring supporters of the terminal. In both cases the emphasis is on jobs.

Monday's filing provided a breakdown of prospective jobs created by the project. The terminal itself would only directly employ 89 workers on-site in 2016 and 213 upon full buildout in 2026; most would be longshoremen. The report claims that associated jobs created by the project (including 44 staff jobs and 173 workers in rail and marine jobs) would boost the total to 430, although most of the rail and marine jobs would not be local hires.

The company also outlined 2,100 jobs it expects to create in temporary construction to build the terminal, and indirect gains in jobs in local businesses. Jobs and tax revenues, mostly going to the state, have been the major selling point for the terminal.

Critics of the terminal want an independent study of SSA Marine's jobs claims, particularly the number of "indirect or induced" jobs the terminal is expected to produce. Despite having put jobs claims at the core of its argument for building the terminal, SSA has resisted this type of study as outside the purview of environmental study. A national financial consulting firm hired by CommunityWise Bellingham recently raised the question of whether the project could actually lead to fewer jobs in the long term.

Rail traffic and other impacts could actually cause the county to suffer a net loss of jobs if SSA's economic projections are low or opportunity losses are high, the study concluded, citing jobs associated with development of Bellingham's new waterfront development plan and with tourism and attraction to newcomers. Rail tracks run through the waterfront site and adjacent to residential and park sites.

Environmental opponents of the SSA terminal allege that the added rail and shipping needed for the project will impact the surrounding community, and that the terminal will threaten the Cherry Point herring stock, important to sustain the salmon fishery. They also worry about the impacts of coal dust on health, a cause that has been spearheaded by Whatcom Docs, a group made up of area physicians.

SSA Marine says it will have state-of-the-art covered confinement equipment for storing and loading the coal, but its plans do not include a giant windscreen around the facility, which company officials had talked about earlier to combat heavy winds at the site.

Opponents of the coal port have seen a rough few months. The group suffered November election setbacks when Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike — an outspoken foe of the terminal — was narrowly defeated for re-election. Only one of the three Whatcom County Council candidates backed by terminal opponents actually won, though a candidate for Bellingham City Council was elected.

Opponents also lost one of their most visible spokesmen, ReSources director Bob Ferris, who left the agency in February. Though the agency has continued to oppose GPT in the wake of Ferris' departure, it has lowered its profile.

Ultimately, the Whatcom County Commission will decide if the project proceeds, and a vote could be at least two or three years away, making the 2013 county council elections perhaps even more critical to the terminal's fate. County commissioners have been warned about conflicts of interest if they speak for or against the terminal, or even discuss it with constituents, though the latter stricture raised concern among council members. The topic is impossible to avoid in the county, particularly in Bellingham.

At least three community meetings are expected when scoping hearings begin in April, including one in the Seattle area. The biggest challenge for the Whatcom County and Department of Ecology officials handing the case will be determining how far to extend the boundaries of its environmental review. Critics of coal exports from as far away as Montana have asked to be considered because of rail traffic and San Juan County wants to be heard based on shipping impacts to the islands.

Several transportation studies have shown that the 18 daily coal trains (full and returning empties) expected per day once the terminal is complete would have a major impact on towns bisected by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) tracks. Bellingham, Mt. Vernon, Edmonds, and Marysville will be particularly impacted. The additional trains, a mile-and-a-half long, would also impact Seattle and Tacoma. Mayor Mike McGinn of Seattle and King County Executive Dow Constantine have expressed concern.

Although the Gateway Pacific applications state that commodities to be handled at Cherry Point will be market-dependent, the terminal is designed to handle bulk commodities, primarily coal. Peabody Coal, the nation's largest coal company, has committed to shipping some 24 million tons of Powder River Basin coal through the terminal.

Gateway Pacific Terminal is just one of several proposed coal ports in Washington and Oregon, as Asia's demand for coal coincides with a decline in the U.S.' burning of coal due to environmental restrictions and an increase in natural-gas alternatives. In Longview, Arch Coal is behind a proposed export facility that could ship up to 44 million tons of coal a year. Like GPT it had troubles with an earlier proposal and withdrew it in 2011. It was refiled last month.

Also in the wings are proposals by the ports of St. Helens and Coos Bay in Oregon, smaller than the two Washington proposals.


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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.