BELLINGHAM - Mayor Dan Pike has announced that he will fight SSA Marine's plans to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal to export coal and other bulk cargoes from Cherry Point.
Pike's Friday, June 3, announcement came two days after most of the members of an overflow crowd at a mayoral "listening session" expressed opposition to the project. Among their reasons were health impacts from coal dust and ship and locomotive emissions; climate change from the burning of exported coal in China; disruption of waterfront redevelopment plans due to excessive train traffic through the city; reduced property values from railroad dirt and noise; and a black eye for Bellingham's image as a green community.
In an interview, Pike acknowledged that the SSA Marine project sounded good to him when he first heard about it some months ago.
"I was pretty supportive of the idea, as well as I understood it," he said.
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But he said his attitude changed when he learned of the amount of cargo that such a facility could handle, and that much or all of that cargo likely would be coal. The worst-case scenario would be as many as 18 trains per day passing through the city - nine loaded trains heading north to Cherry Point, and nine empty trains returning southbound.
When Pike met with SSA and BNSF Railway Co. executives to discuss his concerns, he said they claimed to see no likelihood that the coal trains could interfere with plans to redevelop idle waterfront land that sits across the railroad tracks from downtown Bellingham.
"I don't know how that passes the sniff test," Pike said.
Those factors combined to convince Pike to oppose SSA's plans.
"It wasn't a particularly close call," he said.
Pike said he still could support some kind of cargo terminal development at Cherry Point, but not for coal.
"At this point, I don't think this community wants to see any coal, and I'm kind of with them on that," Pike said.
Trains loaded with U.S. coal are already moving through Bellingham regularly on their way to export terminals in British Columbia. Those who favor the SSA terminal have argued that without Gateway Pacific, those trains will only become more numerous, and the county will see no economic benefits. But SSA opponents argue that the Canadian ports are at or near capacity, and they could not expand to add anywhere near the tonnage that SSA could export at Cherry Point.
Some local labor leaders have expressed strong support for Gateway Pacific because more than 200 permanent jobs eventually could be created there, plus thousands more who could be employed during the two-year construction phase.
Pike said the benefits don't justify the economic and environmental risks.
"We cannot turn our backs on people who are struggling in this community, but that doesn't mean we take jobs at any cost," Pike said.
Pike faces a tough reelection battle against Kelli Linville, a former state representative, and consultant Clayton Petree.
Linville said she shares Pike's concerns about the impact that Gateway Pacific could have on Bellingham, but she said it's too soon to oppose or support the project.
As she sees it, the mayor and the community should participate in the environmental impact study process and get the facts before making a decision.
"I am committed to the public process to make sure we're basing our decisions on facts and science and not on opinions," Linville said.
Under state and federal law, Linville said, SSA would be required to take steps to make up for (mitigate) any harmful impacts that the project is likely to have on the city. That means it's critical for railroad traffic issues and other city concerns to be part of the formal environmental study process.
"If you can't mitigate it, you don't do it," Linville said. "If the cost to this community is too great, I will vigorously oppose it. We haven't had that process."
Petree contends that SSA's site could be put to better use as a container port, and he wants that possibility to be included in the environmental impact statement.
Craig Cole, an SSA spokesman, responded to Pike with a short email.
"I know Dan's worried about re-election, but I think the community would benefit by a calmer and more reasoned discussion of the issues," Cole said.
Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, also issued a statement.
"His decision means that he has sided with the proponents of fear and ignorance over the robust review of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project that the rest of our community will be engaging in over the next few months," Oplinger wrote.
"If we find, through this state and federally-mandated review process, that there are significant impacts which we feel cannot be adequately mitigated, then we should absolutely oppose the project at that time," he wrote. "Opposing it before that work has been completed is simply wrong."