ACME - Residents of the South Fork Valley have seen this coming down the tracks from a mile away.
That doesn't mean they're any less upset about it.
An official at BNSF Railway said something east county residents had been suspecting. Improvements have been made over the past several months to the railroad tracks from Sumas through the South Fork Valley so the route could accommodate more freight traffic - including coal.
Most everyone in the valley noticed the work this year that included resurfacing the track bed and replacing the ties.
"We've been aware of this happening and wondering what's up, and now we know," said Kathie Maxey, a 20-year Acme resident.
BNSF emphasizes that the upgrades were needed whether or not a proposed coal terminal is built at Cherry Point. If approved, Gateway Pacific Terminal would bring up to 18 trains a day - nine loaded with coal and nine empties - through Whatcom County.
"The Sumas Line can be utilized for east-west traffic, not only for coal but for other freight as well," BNSF regional Director of Public Affairs Courtney Wallace has said. "A loaded train could go in one direction and take a different route back."
South Fork residents have long been expecting empty coal trains to run through their valley if Gateway Pacific Terminal is built. The common wisdom was that the loaded coal trains would need to run on the higher-quality tracks that go through Bellingham.
Wallace's statement and her response to a question on Monday, Aug. 25, implied that all options were open as further improvements are considered on the Sumas Line, including those that would make the route ready for full coal trains.
Sumas Mayor Bob Bromley said it was his understanding that the obstacle to loaded coal trains on the Sumas Line was a bridge with a weight restriction south of his city.
"We regularly evaluate our traffic flows and routes for all the freight we carry to ensure we are meeting customers' demand," Wallace said on Monday. "This is why we are making improvements to Sumas and other lines across our network. This includes evaluating bridges and other infrastructure."
Nicole Brown, co-owner of an organic farm south of Acme and a founding member of Safeguard the South Fork, said coal trains in the valley would harm the environment and commerce. The group was formed more than three years ago to keep coal trains out of the South Fork.
"The use of the farmland route exacerbates the pollution of Whatcom County in the context of endangered species, waterways, treaty rights and environmental justice," Brown said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. "The predictable use of the farmland route for Gateway Pacific Terminal further reinforces the coal export proposal as a competing use to our state and local agricultural economies."
South Fork residents have gotten a taste of increased coal-train traffic this summer, as empty trains from Canadian coal ports have been using the east county line instead of the Bellingham route, which is being upgraded. Track and tie replacement from the Chuckanuts to Blaine is scheduled to end by Sept. 30.
While some east county residents say the recent increase in train traffic has been an inconvenience or a noisy distraction, Bromley reported no problems in Sumas.
"We've been getting four to six coal trains a day," Bromley said. "Right now, it's been no problem. This has been a train town since the turn of the last century."
Groups such as Safeguard the South Fork and Communitywise Bellingham, which is studying the countywide impacts of the coal terminal on rail traffic, are pressing for a broad review of that traffic as part of the permitting process. The project is currently under a draft environmental review that isn't expected to be released until the second half of 2015.
Tyler Schroeder, special projects manager for the Whatcom County executive, said that contrary to the concerns of the terminal's critics, a statewide review of train traffic is happening.
"There's a belief that because (all rail improvements) are not in the application, the (environmental review) will not be looking at that," Schroeder said. "The (review) will look at that and inform the permit decision."