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Northwest coal port ignites controversy


Bellingham, Washington is no stranger to industry. The seaside college town in the northwesternmost corner of the country was founded on coal and timber in the 1800s. But after the downtown Georgia-Pacific pulp mill shut down in 2007, the city has been more focused on cleaning up the toxic mess left behind than bringing big industry back to town. Bellingham has become a leader in locally driven, sustainable growth and green power use, and a hub for retirees and outdoor recreationalists. Today, a high-dollar spa sits near the abandoned waterfront coal mine.

But Bellingham could be heading back to its coal town roots if plans move forward to build the largest coal export facility on the West Coast 15 miles north of the city. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal could bring up to 18 coal trains a day (including empties) through the heart of a new waterfront development on the old downtown mill site.

Now, local opposition is steeling itself for a fight against big industry. Last week, Mayor Dan Pike, who initially supported the port and its promise of jobs, got on board the protest train.

"By any calculation, the proposed coal-dependent terminal at Cherry Point does not add up," said Pike in a prepared statement. "In the end, it is my job as Mayor to protect Bellingham and protect it I will."

Pike's new position came after a lively display of protest last week including a city meeting overflowing with coal port opponents. Concerns about health impacts from coal dust and diesel exhaust, reduced property values, downtown development impacts and sullying Bellingham's green reputation dominated the discussion. The day before, outspoken environmental author and activist Bill McKibben rallied local activists to the anti-coal cause.

"This is the perfect place for this fight," said McKibben to a crowd of close to 1,000 last Tuesday. As McKibben told the Cascadia Weekly, “There’s virtually no place on the continent that’s done a better job of showing us how to live locally. Now, by quirk of geography, Bellingham is going to have to make some decisions about what kind of role it wants to play globally.”

The proposed terminal, located near two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter north of Bellingham, could eventually export up to 48 million tons of coal to China annually. SSA Marine, the company hoping to build the $700 million port, has already signed an agreement with Montana-based Peabody Energy to bring 24 million tons of Powder River Basin coal to port via Burlington Northern/Santa Fe rails. An estimated 280 full-time jobs could be created by the port, as well as some 1,700 temporary construction jobs. Eventually, the terminal could export Washington wheat and further bolster the region's economy.

"We've lost 3,500 to 4,000 jobs in the last several years in this area," said David Warren, past president of the Whatcom Central Labor Council, at last week's public meeting. "You can't say you're for jobs if you are against the industries that provide them." Warren was then drowned out by jeers from the opposition, which counters that increased rail traffic will hinder the city's big plans for job-creating waterfront redevelopment. Since the meeting, Warren has joined Gateway Pacific's consulting team.

"Our welcome mat for responsible corporate and small business remains out, but we will not sacrifice our health, safety and quality of life to lure them here," said Mayor Pike in his statement after the meeting.

But for all of the local resistance to the coal port and its associated train traffic, there's not much the city can do about it. Permit documents have been filed with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, state agencies and Whatcom County, who will ultimately decide the fate of Bellingham's rails. At issue is whether the environmental review process for the coal port 15 miles north, which must weigh further impacts to a sensitive herring population, will also include impacts to the city, home to some 40 percent of the county's population.

For a city with industrial roots that has worked hard to wean itself from fossil-fueled electricity, the prospect of delivering coal to foreign plants seems to have led to a sort of identity crisis. “This is like a tale of two Bellinghams,” said Matt Krogh of RE Sources, a local environmental non-profit, “one reaching for a sustainable, clean future, the other clawing its way to the past.”


Nathan Rice is an HCN intern.

Photo of Cherry Point, Wash., courtesy Washington Department of Ecology.