Proposal for a new coal-shipment terminal promises thousands of jobs, lots of debate
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