BELLINGHAM - More than 300 people packed Northwood Hall Wednesday, April 27, for a City Club debate of the Gateway Pacific coal and bulk cargo terminal proposed for Cherry Point, and many more were turned away for lack of space.
The project, proposed by Seattle-based SSA Marine, is in the initial phase of an environmental study and permitting process that is expected to take at least two years.
SSA Marine Vice President Bob Watters and former Whatcom County Council member Craig Cole made the case for the $500 million project, touting the jobs it would create.
Bob Ferris, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, argued that the project would do more harm than good to the local economy as well as the environment, with northbound coal trains fouling the air and water while they discourage redevelopment of the Bellingham waterfront.
Cole noted that the Cherry Point area has been zoned for heavy industry for decades and already is home to two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter that take advantage of the site's deep-water shipping potential and rail link. Existing state and local land use plans already envision a fourth deep-water shipping pier at SSA's 1,100-acre site.
Construction of the terminal to ship U.S. coal, grain, potash and other bulk cargoes to the Far East would take two years and employ 1,500 to 1,700 workers, Cole said. Once it is in full operation, he estimated the terminal's full-time work force at 280, besides hundreds more indirect jobs resulting from the economic activity.
"I don't think we need to tell anybody that we need this," Cole said. "It's a very dire economic time."
Besides jobs for Whatcom County, coal exports would benefit the nation, Cole said.
"We're a debtor nation," Cole said. "We owe the Chinese 3 trillion dollars. We can't continue like this. We have to bring cash into the country."
Watters said his company's project should not be compared to older coal terminals at Roberts Bank, B.C., and elsewhere. He said the Gateway Pacific project will be built to higher environmental standards.
He also said it was a mistake to talk of the project as a coal terminal, although coal likely would be a prominent cargo there. The facility would also be able to handle grain, potash and whatever other cargo is in demand.
"We have to be very versatile," he said.
Watters also contended that if the Gateway Pacific facility is not built to capture economic benefits for Whatcom County, larger volumes of coal and other cargoes bound for China likely will move through the county anyhow, en route to the expanding terminals in Canada.
Ferris replied that 280 permanent jobs would be an absurdly small economic benefit to get, in exchange for the damage. He said SSA and other companies that would benefit from the project -Peabody Energy, Goldman Sachs and BNSF Railway Co. - are using all their power to distract government officials from that reality.
"They are exerting political pressure ... wherever and whenever they can, and they are asking us to trust them," Ferris said.
At its maximum potential, Ferris said the terminal could mean 10 additional loaded trains plus 10 empty trains moving through the city per day. Each train could be a mile and a half long, and that would translate to 30 miles of additional trains blocking local railroad crossings each day, on a line that separates the rest of the city from its waterfront.
"If I owned a waterfront business, this project would scare me," Ferris said.
Ferris was skeptical about SSA's claims that coal dust issues would be minor. Even if that were the case, he said the diesel emissions from the locomotives would be enough to raise cancer rates among people living near the tracks.
From a global perspective, Ferris said the project would enable more coal-burning in China and other Asian countries, with prevailing winds depositing the resulting mercury pollution in the U.S.
"Our future is far too important to squander on bad ideas from a failed past," Ferris said.
Event moderator Bob Simmons asked Watters why SSA was opposing the inclusion of rail traffic impacts in the environmental impact study to be prepared for the project. Without answering that question, Watters said it is up to regulatory agencies to decide what the environmental impact statement will include.
"Whatever they tell us to study, that's what we'll study," Watters said.
Simmons then asked Ferris to explain what kind of job-creating projects he might favor, as an alternative to the SSA project.
Ferris said redevelopment of the Bellingham waterfront could attract more private investment and generate more long-term jobs than Gateway Pacific. He also said he might not oppose a smaller-scale Cherry Point shipping terminal that did not handle coal.
Tom Anderson, former general manager of Whatcom County Public Utility District and candidate for Whatcom County executive, asked Watters about the project's impact on freighter traffic.
"What's being done to mitigate the potential for shipwrecks?" Anderson asked.
Watters replied that a vessel traffic study will be part of the process, and the U.S. Coast Guard and ship pilots' organizations have systems in place to manage the traffic.
In an earlier telephone interview, Puget Sound Pilots President Andy Coe, himself a ship pilot, said his group has been in communication with SSA about the Gateway Pacific project.
Coe said the level of ship traffic envisioned for Gateway Pacific would pose some challenges. More pilots would have to be trained and certified to operate large vessels in local waters, a five-year process. The added traffic also would mean a bit more congestion that would affect operations of other vessels in the area
"It will impact the routing of every vessel up there," Coe said. "Right now they can pretty much come and go as they want."
But the traffic levels would be manageable and well below what is the norm in the world's busiest waterways, Coe said.