People living in Bellingham have a pretty forgiving attitude toward the trains that rumble through town. The shrill whistles, the squealing wheels, the crossing delays—they’re all part of life in this laid-back college community. But something new is roaring down the tracks and it has the city’s full attention. About 800 people packed a recent meeting in Bellingham High School’s theater to learn more about the proposed $700 million Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would be situated within the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve on the Strait of Georgia, about 15 miles northwest of downtown Bellingham and 10 miles from the Canadian border.
There are already three industrial sites in this area just west of Ferndale: two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter. The fourth and final component in Whatcom County’s master plan for the site would ship millions of tons of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming to China and other Asian countries. It would also have the capacity to handle wheat, potash and other dry bulk commodities.
Supporters herald the expected $140 million annual economic impact of the terminal, including payroll and tax revenues, the efficiency of using large “Capesize” vessels—the largest dry bulk carriers available—and the thousands of well-paying jobs it would create. Seattle-based SSA Marine, the largest terminal operator in the country, estimates the project would create 4,400 jobs during construction and 1,250 jobs long term. SSA Marine has entered into an agreement with St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world, to export as much as 24 million metric tons of coal per year through the proposed terminal.
“This project is still in the very, very early stages,” says Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry. He wants the community to keep an open mind, arguing that when a $700 million project is proposed for his community, “The first thing to do is to welcome them to the community and sit down and work with them. That doesn’t mean that if there are impacts we can’t mitigate, we wouldn’t be opposed to it in the long run.”
Opponents say increased train traffic and coal dust from the terminal will affect the health, safety and quality of life of Bellingham residents. They also worry that water quality and herring spawning grounds within the aquatic reserve will be harmed by coal dust, storm water runoff and possible fuel spills. Too, the area could be put at risk for a possible oil spill caused by vessel collisions or groundings.
The level of early opposition has come as a bit of a surprise to SSA Marine Senior Vice President Bob Watters, who is point man on the project in community meetings and telephone town halls. (This may explain why Watters’ cell phone ringtone is the song “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.”) “People who are opposed to it are not going to change their minds,” Watters says. “It’s the people who are undecided that we have to convince.”
Already on board are local labor leaders such as Chris Johnson, business manager of Laborers Local 276. “It would be big for us,” says Johnson, who is thrilled at the prospect of good jobs for his members. “It would empty my hall and I’d have to take on other people—apprenticeship opportunities for young guys who want to start a pension plan and get health care.”
Those family-wage blue-collar jobs are hard to come by in Whatcom County, where the cost of living approaches Seattle’s but average wages are 20 percent lower, Oplinger notes.
Still, opponents say there is more at stake than employment. “This will destroy our quality of life and impact the health of the people in this community,” says Matt Krogh, the North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a nonprofit environmental advocacy and education organization. He adds, “They want to build the terminal in one of the most beautiful and historically most productive ecosystems in the Salish Sea.”
Much of the perceived effect in Bellingham would come from the estimated nine round trips of coal trains added to the three or four that currently pass through the city daily. Each train would have at least 125 cars, extending a mile and a half. That’s too much for some residents. Krogh and other opponents point to stories of coal dust drifting from the Westshore Terminals site in Roberts Bank, British Columbia, near the BC Ferries Tsawwassen terminal, and then settling on boats and cars in nearby Point Roberts, Washington.
SSA Marine’s Watters counters that 40-year-old Westshore, built on open water, is outdated and lacks the latest containment technology. He says the proposed Cherry Point facility would meet or exceed current environmental standards. Johnson, of the Laborers union, adds: “We’ve had coal trains coming through Bellingham for close to 40 years. In fact, trains are the most economical, environmentally friendly way to ship goods overland.”
At the Chamber of Commerce, Oplinger says he expects the BNSF Railway to “come to the table” to look at ways of lessening the impact of additional trains, including possibly moving tracks that now cross the city’s new waterfront redevelopment site and creating a federally defined “quiet zone” through Bellingham. A new route would eliminate train whistles by requiring double crossing arms, fencing near the crossing to limit pedestrian access and other safety measures. “Rather than try to fight it off,” he says, “if we can find ways to work with the railroad and mitigate the effects, we would be much better off.”
The environmental impact statement process, which began this summer, is likely to take more than three years. “It should be done well, it should be transparent and it should be thorough,” says Watters. “We may not know all the impacts, either, so let’s let the process run.”
Political leaders are also waiting to see where things go. Karina Shagren, a spokesperson for Governor Christine Gregoire, says the governor “is aware of the economic benefits, but she wants to see the regulatory process play out before she takes a position.” U.S. Representative Rick Larsen, whose congressional district encompasses Whatcom County and the proposed terminal site until redistricting takes effect next year, supports the project because of the jobs it will create. But Larsen urges citizens to express their concerns through the “scoping” process playing out this summer.
That process is sure to be hotly debated. Krogh argues for a regional scope, pointing to impacts of increased train traffic from Spokane, all along the Columbia River valley, and through Seattle. “This will have real impacts on the entire state,” he argues. In May, the Seattle City Council, which ultimately has no say in the matter, unanimously passed a resolution opposing the development of coal export terminals in the state, citing concerns about increased train traffic and possible adverse impacts on public health and the environment. Besides the Gateway Pacific Terminal, at least five other projects have been proposed in Washington and Oregon. Trains traveling to the Gateway Pacific Terminal would be routed through Seattle because a more logical northerly route across Stevens Pass presents too steep a grade for the fully loaded trains.
Those who favor the project worry that environmentalists are going too big-picture with their complaints, measuring impacts that span from the mines in the Powder River Basin through the Pacific Northwest and across the ocean to the smokestacks of China. Proponents complain that general opposition to coal as an energy source is playing a big part in efforts to stop the project, which is really about transportation and jobs. “If they were shipping paper goods on these trains, nobody would say a word,” Johnson says. “It’s being mined and it’s being shipped. Stopping this project is not going to keep one ounce of coal from being burned.”
But opponents insist there is plenty of ammunition to use against the proposal, based solely on its effect on the quality of life in Bellingham. In June, RE Sources opened a new field office in downtown Bellingham and began an extensive telephone and doorbell campaign against the project as the scoping got under way. “The more people know about the project, the more they oppose it,” says Julie Trimingham, a local filmmaker and writer. “They are getting informed and getting involved.”