BELLINGHAM - Since the early days of the ongoing public debate over a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point, backers of that terminal have argued that increasing numbers of coal trains would rumble through the city even if the Whatcom County terminal were never built.
On Friday, June 8, Communitywise Bellingham issued a report - prepared by Communitywise staffer Kim Lund, Executive Director Shannon Wright and board member Jack Delay - that challenges that argument. Their report contends that the planned expansion of Canadian coal export terminals could not generate anywhere near the amount of train traffic that the Gateway Pacific Terminal project would.
The Communitywise report says the total export capacity of British Columbia coal terminals will be 69.6 million tons per year when expansion projects are complete. Gateway Pacific's maximum capacity would be 54 million tons per year, including 48 million tons of coal.
But the report contends that little of the new capacity at the Canadian ports would be dedicated to U.S. coal that would pass through Bellingham.
According to their analysis, the planned expansions at Canadian coal ports would add one to two additional trains through Bellingham per day, at most - including both loaded northbound trains and empty southbound trains returning to Powder River Basin coal mines in Montana and Wyoming.
At full capacity, Gateway Pacific could serve nine loaded trains per day. All nine would get there via Bellingham, and return the way they came. Eight of the loaded trains would carry coal, according to plans announced by SSA Marine of Seattle, the company that would build and operate the terminal.
An earlier report from Communitywise Bellingham contended that BNSF would have to build a new siding that would stretch from Fairhaven to downtown Bellingham to accommodate that many more trains, and such a siding would disrupt waterfront traffic and end car access to Boulevard Park.
BNSF has denied it would need to build such a siding to accommodate Cherry Point-bound coal.
A small number of daily coal trains already use the BNSF Railway Co. line along the Bellingham waterfront en route to the Westshore and Ridley terminals in British Columbia.
Craig Cole, SSA's local spokesman, challenged the Communitywise report, saying its authors don't have enough expertise to make such strong statements about the future of Canadian coal ports.
"What's happening here is, you have amateurs trying to play economists," Cole said. "The Communitywise report is an opinion piece. It's not a study. ... I respect them for their opinions and their research."
Gateway Pacific spokeswoman Sherri Huleatt provided a letter that former Port of Bellingham Executive Director Charlie Sheldon sent to the Seattle City Council on May 20, asking them not to approve a resolution opposing Gateway Pacific. Among other things, Sheldon argued that if Washington state coal ports were not built, Canadian ports would get the business and Washington state would get passing trains.
"Some opponents of the Cherry Point facility have argued that there is not room in Canada to greatly expand capacity," Sheldon's letter stated. "I have personally spoken with the manager of the Ridley Coal Terminal in Prince Rupert, Canada, a 150-acre facility able to handle 20 million tons a year. The facility lies adjacent to hundreds of undeveloped acres and can easily be expanded to handle over 100 million tons a year itself. All of this is to say that so long as the market exists the trains will run, either to Canada or Cherry Point."
Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, expressed similar views. He contended there is little doubt that coal train traffic through Bellingham is likely to increase with or without Gateway Pacific. The only question is, how much.
Asked if he believed the level of coal train traffic through Bellingham would be just as great if Gateway Pacific were not built, Oplinger said there was no way to be certain.
"I have no independent knowledge of this," Oplinger said. "These are very important questions, and they ought to be addressed through the environmental impact statement process."
That process has yet to get under way in earnest, but is expected to take well over a year. Public hearing testimony and written public comment will be taken later in 2012 to help regulatory agencies determine how much attention should be paid to rail traffic problems and many other things before permits are issued - if they are issued at all.
Suann Lundsberg, BNSF spokeswoman in Fort Worth, Texas, cited a report on Coal Age magazine's website in which George Dorsey, president of the Ridley terminal in Prince Rupert, said his port could add an additional 24 to 30 million tons per year capacity in three to five years, beyond the expansion projects already under way. Dorsey also said the new capacity could be available for U.S. coal producers.
In an email message, Jack Delay of Communitywise noted the high cost of shipping coal from the lower 48 states almost to the Alaska border, where the Ridley terminal is located. He contended that if U.S. coal goes to an expanded Ridley facility, it will get there by way of Montana and Canadian rail lines, not Bellingham.
Delay noted that if BNSF and SSA can convince regulators that Gateway Pacific won't cause any increase in rail traffic beyond what would happen anyhow, they likely would be off the hook for the potential costs of paying for measures to help reduce or eliminate rail traffic impacts beyond the immediate vicinity of Cherry Point.
"Everyone understands the project involves powerful interests who are used to holding sway in Congress and on Wall Street," Delay wrote. "What I hope for is that they take their responsibilities to local citizens a little more seriously. This process would work a whole lot better with less PR and more candid discussion."
Reach JOHN STARK firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2274.