Coal Train: The people and process behind Bellingham's coal port decision

The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal has sparked the most-complex environmental review since, well, forever. The first public comment period ends today. In this first of a three-part series, take an inside look at the players on both sides of the issue.
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Last month a ship knocked out a pier at the Westshore Terminals, North America's largest coal port, spilling coal into the Fraser delta. (Click on images to enlarge.)

The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal has sparked the most-complex environmental review since, well, forever. The first public comment period ends today. In this first of a three-part series, take an inside look at the players on both sides of the issue.

“The long and winding road . . . that leads to your door.” Paul McCartney’s road could scarcely be longer and more twisted than the process that rolls forth next week as public comment closes (for the moment) on the controversial proposal to build a giant coal-export terminal north of Bellingham. 

The Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) project has prompted the region’s most-complex environmental review since public agencies began doing environmental reviews in the 1970s. More than 10,000 comments were logged during the four-month period that closes today (Tuesday) at 5 p.m. In seven public meetings, online and via mail, citizens from across Washington and adjoining states told three public agencies what issues they want studied in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will shape the fate of the huge terminal. 

Gateway Pacific is the latest of several proposals to site a fourth industry at Cherry Point, 17 miles south of the Canadian border on the Strait of Georgia. Marine SSA, the Seattle-based global terminal operator that will build and run the Cherry Point facility, proposed a smaller export terminal in the 1990s and gained some of the necessary permits. The process was delayed by a lawsuit that resulted in a 1999 agreement with environmental agencies. SSA did not pursue to the next permitting steps.    

Gov. Chris Gregoire recognized the scale of the SSA Marine project. In November 2012, she created a multi-agency permitting team (MAP) to streamline the process. The 17-member MAP includes representatives from eight public agencies and from SSA Marine and BNSF Railway, which will build the spur line that will service the terminal. Despite the MAP's efforts to simplify, the process from application to approval or rejection remains long and thorny, governed by both state and national laws and regulations. The MAP is not currently meeting and the permitting process has begun.    

Final decisions on a host of permits aren’t expected until at least 2016 and legal appeals are inevitable. Even the most-optimistic timeline forecasts agree that no coal will be loaded onto Asia-bound ships until 2018, probably later—if at all. The sheer size and complexity of the project, the controversial nature of the coal it will load and the number of governmental agencies involved promise bumps and even some craters in the long and winding road to the terminal.

This is the first in a three-part series that will attempt to make sense of the elaborate permitting process, and take a look at the players (both pro and con) and the deciders.

Part One: The Players

The principal and project developer is Seattle-based SSA Marine. The company was founded in 1949 by Fred Smith as Bellingham Stevedoring Co., and moved to Seattle in the 1950s. Bellingham Stevedoring became SSA Marine in 1984. It is now the world’s largest terminal operator, with facilities in areas as far-flung as Vietnam and Iraq. Goldman Sachs Infrastructure Partners bought 49 percent of SSA in 2007. Goldman Sachs is just one of the deep-pocket partners who are working to help SSA open Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Peabody Coal, the world’s largest private coal company, is another terminal supporter. Peabody signed an agreement in March 2011 to ship 24 million tons a year of Powder River Basin coal through the Gateway terminal to Asian markets. Peabody, like all U.S. coal companies, has lost much of its domestic market to cheaper natural gas and to tighter rules on air pollution. 

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway plays an important supporting role. BNSF would transport the coal 1,000 miles from Wyoming to Cherry Point. A fully-operating terminal would generate 18 coal trans a day—nine full, nine empty and each a mile and a half long. Those 18 trains are a big jump from the current number (about four a day) serving Canadian coal terminals. The new train traffic would more than double present rail traffic north of Everett. BNSF has consistently refused to divulge how it would handle the increase and who would pay to upgrade the rail system.  

SSA Marine and BNSF and the coal industry in general joined forces in 2012 to form the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, an advertising and public relations effort managed by Edelman, a large national firm with offices in Seattle. The Alliance is believed to have spent several million dollars in the last half of 2012 on regional television and radio ads. The ads focus on jobs, and the campaign has created strange bedfellows. 

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Floyd McKay
Northwest Labor Council’s Mark Lowry: "It’s the jobs.

The Alliance has found partners in the organized-labor world. Unions in construction, longshore and rail industries are active, as are umbrella groups of unions, such as the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council. “I don’t do business with Peabody,” Mark Lowry, head of the Central Labor Council told Cascadia Weekly’s Bob Simmons. “I don’t like Peabody . . . But I am forced to be a realist. SSA Marine has a good record of dealing honestly and reasonably with unions and offering living-wage jobs with good benefits. That’s what we’re after.” 

The quest to acquire all the necessary building permits has already cost SSA Marine $961,703 under a contract to pay the big engineering firm CH2M Hill to run the four-month process that will "scope" the project. No price has been negotiated for the subsequent Environmental Impact Statement process, although it will be much higher. The project applicant must pay all the costs of the permitting process. In addition, SSA has hired consultants and campaign workers to spur turnout and build up support in Whatcom County, support that they hope will lead to a receptive county council in the 2013 elections. The Whatcom County Council will eventually vote on the two largest permits for the terminal; project-friendly council members would be a plus for SSA.     

GPT opponents have also spent money, hiring anti-GPT campaign leaders and rallying volunteers; again, some of the opposition effort will be focused on the 2013 county election. By the time final votes are in, millions will have been spent on permitting, advertising and public relations. Gateway Pacific Terminal is already creating jobs, although none involve shoveling coal. 

Local and national environmental groups opposed to the terminal have been joined by doctors concerned about the health implications of coal and diesel emissions. Local governments facing heavy costs to deal with the increased rail traffic also oppose the terminal, as do a host of marine scientists, tourism businesses and fishermen concerned about ship traffic.

The umbrella agency for opponents is Power Past Coal (PPC), which is active in four Northwest states and has put a major effort into helping citizens enter comments during the four-month “scoping” process that determines which environmental issues will be studied.

Probably the best-known of the PPC cohort is the Sierra Club. A longtime opponent of coal in this country, the Club's efforts are now focused on exports. Its campaign got a $50 million boost from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2011, moving it into the “deep pockets” league. In Washington, the groups Climate Solutions in Seattle and ReSources in Seattle and Bellingham play a key role. Given coal's contribution to global warming, the re-emergence of concern about climate change has been a boon to terminal opponents.

The health hazards associated with burning coal propelled the group called Whatcom Docs into the fray. With some 180 supporters in the medical community, Whatcom Docs has led opposition, pointing out the dangers of airborne coal dust and of diesel particulates from idling rail engines. In the San Juan Islands, retired scientists, some with degrees in marine sciences, have given the opposition an academic gravitas. See an example here

And then there is the coalition of Native American tribes supporting the Lummi Nation in its fight to protect historic fishing grounds and a cultural site. Environmental reviews must be sensitive to Native American rights.

A raft of public agencies must be considered players as well; in particular, the Washington cities and counties that worry about the cost of handling the additional coal train traffic. Public-health agencies share many of the health concerns raised by Whatcom Docs. School officials voice concern about the impact of additional noise and traffic on learning, and about compromised safety at the railroad crossings used by school buses. Business organizations that have weighed in on the issue tend to side with proponents, citing job creation at the terminal itself and at associated businesses. 

That's the scouting report on the groups facing off over the Gateway Pacific Terminal project. It will be several years before we know which side comes out on top. In Part Two, we'll walk through the tortured and protracted decision-making process. On Thursday, we'll take a look at who finally decides. 


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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.