Global, local issues could be key in Whatcom County coal port debate

BELLINGHAM - Rail traffic and the environmental impact of burning coal likely will be key debating points as the permitting process for the Gateway Pacific shipping terminal at Cherry Point moves ahead.

Those were the issues on the minds of local elected officials Wednesday, March 9, as Craig Cole explained his view of the plan's advantages to members of the Whatcom Council of Governments. Cole, a former Whatcom County Council member, has been hired as a project spokesman by SSA Marine of Seattle, the project developer.

After Cole outlined the estimated jobs and tax revenues that would be generated by the $500 million project, some of the elected officials at the meeting raised questions about the project's impact on local traffic as well as the global impact on the environment.

When the shipping terminal operates at maximum capacity, Cole said it would generate nine trainloads per day, carrying grain, coal, potash and other commodities onto big cargo vessels for shipment to China and other Asian markets. Those trains would move through Bellingham loaded, and return the same way after unloading.

Cole said the actual amount of train traffic likely would vary based on market conditions, and that coal trains already moving north through Bellingham to Canadian ports would likely unload at Gateway Pacific instead.

Pat Alesse, Birch Bay Water and Sewer District commissioner, said he was concerned about traffic delays along the roads leading to the Birch Bay area, but that wasn't a reason to oppose the project. He wants project developers to take steps to reduce harmful impacts.

"We owe the Chinese money and they want to buy our coal, which is better than their coal," Alesse said. "I think this has to happen. My thing is, industry has to pay its way."

Bellingham City Council member Jack Weiss raised larger issues. He asked if the county might not be better off trying to develop a container port as well as industrial jobs producing manufactured goods, rather than try to base an economy on export of bulk commodities such as coal.

Jim Miller, COG's executive director, said bulk commodities generate more jobs and tax revenue than container ports.

Cole said current estimates are that the bulk cargo terminal would have a payroll of 280 permanent, high-wage jobs, although he also said that job projections are preliminary and subject to change.

Cole also argued that no other sources of industrial jobs are now available. He acknowledged that the question of continued global reliance on coal as a fuel is a complex one, but he contended that stopping the Gateway Pacific project won't change anything on a global level, since China will buy and burn coal in any foreseeable scenario.

"What can we do that will make a difference?" Cole said. "The only difference we can make is if we don't do this project, we won't have the jobs."

Instead of futile attempts to eradicate the use of the fossil fuel, Cole said it would be better to focus on efforts to develop clean coal technology.

"I'm confident that high-grade coal coming from the U.S. ... is a better source of coal than what is coming from other places around the world," Cole said.