Coal supporters make their push

In Whatcom County, people see a Cherry Point shipping terminal as a source of well-paying jobs and opportunity for local residents
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Supporters of a project to ship coal to China showed out in force for a Ferndale meeting.

In Whatcom County, people see a Cherry Point shipping terminal as a source of well-paying jobs and opportunity for local residents

The five-mile trip on I-5 from Bellingham to Ferndale is mostly open with pockets of small businesses, but somewhere along the way one leaves Bellingham and enters Whatcom County.

Members of the team that is conducting scoping meetings to determine what should be studied in an environmental review of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal learned that point quite well Thursday (Nov. 29) as they held the fourth of seven meetings around the state. Ferndale is definitely part of “The County,” and Bellingham — although a city within Whatcom County — is not part of The County.

It’s a phenomenon repeated in many places where a liberal city is surrounded by a much more conservative county. Issues divide, cultures divide, voting patterns reflect the division. In this case, it’s the terminal, which proponents call the “bulk terminal” and opponents call the “coal terminal.” Actually, it would be both: a bulk terminal where the bulk commodity is coal. And so it goes.

Backers of the $665 million terminal dominated the Ferndale hearing, just as opponents dominated an earlier hearing in Bellingham. SSA Marine, the project sponsor, handed out green T-shirts to supporters who began gathering before 10 a.m. for a session that started five hours later. As a result, the green-glad supporters got nearly all of the 100 speaking slots, allocated on a first-come basis.

About 1,300 showed up for the four-hour session, perhaps two-thirds backing the terminal, based on the reaction to speakers.

Pro-terminal speakers held the microphone for over two hours before the number of an opponent was called. And, wouldn’t you know it, the speaker was a recent (2006) incomer to the area, a vegetarian and organic gardener building a solar home. He set a sharp contrast to the 62 who spoke before him, many of whom stressed generations of family in Whatcom County growing up on family-wage, blue-collar jobs.

Their message was simple — Whatcom County needs more good jobs and the terminal will be a good citizen and pay good wages and lots of taxes to local schools and other agencies. Many of the speakers identified themselves as union members, particularly of construction and longshore unions, and told the panel of job losses in the economic recession.

“Organized labor is very clear, from the hiring halls in Northwest Washington to our state and national federations, we want the Gateway Pacific Terminal built. Our members know how to build and operate these facilities safely,” Mark Lowry, president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, told the panel.

"Labor takes a backseat to no one on strong environmental standards, and none will be slighted here. We want to do this project right, and we call on the agencies to get on with the study.”

Although Whatcom County’s unemployment rate is only 6.4 percent, below the state average of 8.2 percent, high-income union jobs have been depressed since closure of the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill in 2001. Leaders in Bellingham have attempted to move toward a more “green” and professional economy; smaller towns in the county are pushing for the industrial jobs provided by the terminal.

That message has been the major selling point for the terminal in Whatcom County, and SSA has sent groups of young men door-to-door for weeks to emphasize the economic and tax benefits from the terminal. Nearly all of Washington’s direct economic benefits from the project — which would be the largest coal-export terminal on the West Coast — will be in Whatcom County, and most of the tax benefits as well. Negative impacts, such as additional rail traffic and shipping in Puget Sound and threats to the salmon fishery, will be primarily borne outside the immediate zone around the terminal. The three earlier scoping sessions—in Bellingham, Friday Harbor and Mount Vernon—heard primarily from the impacted communities; Thursday the panel heard from some of those who would benefit.

There is a lot of money on the table, and proponents are ramping up their ground game in addition to spending over a million dollars on advertising in the region.

The big winners would be the giant firms building and servicing the terminal. Peabody Coal, the nation’s largest coal company, will ship 24 million tons of coal a year when the terminal opens and increase that to 48 million at buildout. SSA Marine of Seattle, a large international terminal operator 49 percent owned by a Goldman Sachs affiliate, will build and operate the terminal. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway gets the lucrative hauling business.

Local construction workers stand to gain from a two-year construction period that SSA Marine says will bring 4,400 jobs; construction unions, and longshoremen who would staff the terminal, are among the project’s biggest backers. At buildout, 213 permanent jobs are projected in SSA Marine’s applications, with about the same number added for rail and merchant-ship workers, tugboat operators and others associated with the terminal. Most of these jobs would likely not go to locals, however. Another 821 “indirect” jobs are predicted, at area groceries, restaurants, casinos, hardware stores, etc. Estimates are from a study commissioned by SSA Marine by Martin Associates, a national firm specializing in marine industries.

Project supporters used the forum as a platform to make their views on jobs known, and to assure agency representatives that they — the people closest to the site — were not concerned about issues raised by what some called “fearmongers” and “alarmists” in the opposition camp. The speakers stressed the community benefits of industries already located on Cherry Point, the industrial site where Gateway Pacific would be built. “Good neighbors,” was Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen’s description. Certainly, they have been major funders of public services in the state’s northwestern corner.

The small school districts of Blaine and Ferndale are heavily financed by Cherry Point industries. With the Gateway Pacific Terminal, the districts would gain funds from four of the top five biggest properties in Whatcom County, including the BP and Tosco refineries and Alumet aluminum plant. Ferndale School District would receive about $4.4 million when the terminal is built out, and Blaine School District would receive $808,780, according to an analysis compiled for SSA Marine by FCS Group, a Redmond-based economic consulting firm. The other major impact is to eight Whatcom County funds, which would receive $1.8 million; the largest beneficiary is the county road fund. State of Washington property tax income would be $1.7 million. The FCS report and the Martin report are available here.

Bellingham, where major negative impacts of the coal-train traffic would occur, receives no property taxes from Cherry Point industries for either the city or its school district.

Because school districts are financed by a combination of levies and bonds, it is difficult to predict impact on an individual residence in the Ferndale or Blaine school districts. FCS notes that taxes on residential property may be reduced because the tax burden would be spread out over a larger tax base with the addition of the terminal.

Critics of the terminal do not deny the significance of a $665 million project in the county, but they have called for an independent review of SSA’s economic data as part of the environmental review of the project. A study in November 2011 by Public Financial Management, a national consultant to local governments, stated that SSA had not provided the additional material that would have aided in its study. The study, commissioned by CommunityWise Bellingham, raised several issues where jobs could be lost as a result of the project, primarily from increased rail traffic in Bellingham. The study is available here.

A major problem for Public Financial Management and others attempting to assess the net impact of a project like Gateway Pacific is that it is extraordinarily difficult to measure a negative — that is, potential loss of jobs or potential fiscal impacts to a community, other than the considerable cost of building overpasses and controlled crossings to deal with added rail traffic.

Weighing all this conflicting testimony will be the job of representatives of Whatcom County, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; they are sitting through the seven meetings and sifting through thousands of online and written comments. They must determine the scope of topics to be studied in an environmental impact study (EIS) that will be conducted over the next two years.

Most of the testimony Thursday did not address the question asked by the scoping team: What do you want us to study, and why? Speakers, instead, wanted to make a point: We need jobs as soon as possible, Gateway Pacific promises the jobs and we want it built. One scoping issue that was addressed, however, was whether the EIS should have a broad mission — pulling in other coal-terminal proposals such as a large one in Longview — and creating what the agencies call an “area-wide study.” Pro-terminal speakers stressed that they want a single-project-only review. An area-wide study — a priority of many export-terminal opponents — would delay the EIS and open up issues such as intrastate rail traffic that could be crippling to the terminal.

The scoping hearings move downstate in December, with a Tuesday (Dec. 4) meeting in Spokane, followed by Dec. 12 in Vancouver and Dec. 13 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct the number of indirect jobs estimated from the terminal study by Martin Associates.


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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.