Tale of Two Cities: Ferndale welcomes Big Coal

Cherry Point has pumped millions into Ferndale, where residents and town officials are (mostly) bullish on coal.
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A loaded coal train crosses Main Street, Ferndale’s only grade separation

Cherry Point has pumped millions into Ferndale, where residents and town officials are (mostly) bullish on coal.

Editor's note: This two-part series looks at the local impact of the giant Gateway Pacific coal export terminal being considered for Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. If approved and built, Gateway Pacific will dramatically increase the number and size of trains hauling coal through western Washington's railroad towns. Here is how the prospect of Big Coal plays in industrial Ferndale. Tomorrow, we'll visit small town Burlington, just 40 miles down the track.

Cherry Point gave Ferndale new life more than half a century ago. The site’s two big oil refineries, aluminum plant and co-generation facility turned the struggling farm town into a bedroom community with acres of attractive suburban homes for the new commuters traveling back and forth to nearby Bellingham. Over the years, Cherry Point has pumped millions into the city and its school system.

No surprise then that Ferndale officials — and most of its residents — support the giant coal-export facility that is being proposed for the Cherry Point site. If approved and built, the so-called Gateway Pacific Terminal would be the nation’s largest coal export operation. The proposed $665 million investment would make GPT the second most valuable property in Whatcom County, right after the BP Refinery at Cherry Point.

In addition to the obvious boon to Ferndale’s property tax base, the city also stands to gain many of the 430 permanent jobs at GPT, plus temporary construction jobs. For this city of 12,000, firmly middle-class and blue-collar, Cherry Point industries pay good wages.

But Ferndale officials and citizens clearly face a conflict over GPT. The obvious economic benefits of a new coal port come with equally obvious downsides.

Coal is an unpopular commodity, China an unpopular destination and since GPT coal will be transported by rail and not ship, congestion from coal trains is a huge concern for the increasing number of commuters filling Ferndale’s quiet cul-de-sac neighborhoods.

Tradeoffs are inevitable if Ferndale continues to back another Cherry Point plant. But city leaders are among the proponents featured in GPT testimonials.

Ferndale citizens won’t be the ones voting to approve GPT. The Whatcom County Council is the major decision-maker among several agencies. But the view from Ferndale will certainly be on the radar when the County Council votes — no earlier than 2015 by most estimates. 

Today’s deep-water ports on Georgia Strait bring crude oil from Alaska by tankers. The giant ships create few negative impacts, while providing good jobs and tax revenue. It’s been a win-win deal for the ports and their surrounding communities for half a century and, at least in the early going, it looked like more of the same when SSA Marine announced its plans to construct a huge export terminal on a thousand-acre site between the BP and Tosco refineries at Cherry Point.

“We know what Cherry Point did for Ferndale,” says Mayor Gary Jensen, who grew up along with Ferndale in the shadow of these plants. “Cherry Point is a special kind of thing to Ferndale.” The second-term mayor defended the city’s action on April 4, 2011 to become an early supporter of Gateway Pacific.

Ferndale City Council members say they were not told that the terminal would export coal, almost exclusively, and that 18 coal trains a day would be running right through the city. Coal was no secret, however; Peabody Coal had announced an agreement with GPT a month earlier. SSA Marine representatives quickly got all six of Whatcom County’s Small City Caucus members to support the project by stressing payrolls, taxes and a multi-commodity terminal.

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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.