South Fork residents join opposition to Cherry Point cargo port

ACME - About 75 South Fork residents who gathered Thursday night, April 28, seemed to agree that they want to keep coal trains out of their scenic rural valley.

But they plan to oppose SSA Marine's Gateway Pacific Cherry Point cargo export terminal that could draw those trains, rather than just try to get those trains to go elsewhere.

Nicole Brown, co-owner of Moondance Farm in Wickersham, said she was motivated to start organizing a group dubbed "Safeguard the South Fork" after she learned that Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike was suggesting that coal trains could get to Cherry Point via a little-used South Fork line, instead of via the BNSF Railway Co. mainline that runs through Bellingham near the waterfront.

Brown noted that several years ago, South Fork residents rallied in opposition to a state plan to create a rail and highway "commerce corridor" to Canada through their valley. That plan never got past the study phase. Brown called on her neighbors to mobilize again to meet a similar threat.

"We stand for quality of air and quality of water," she said. "We stand for locally owned businesses and locally owned farms."

Much of the meeting was devoted to a presentation by Bob Ferris, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, who has been mobilizing local opposition to SSA Marine's plans. The Gateway Pacific terminal, if it reaches the maximum size envisioned, could ship 50 million tons of coal and other bulk commodities to Asia each year. That would mean perhaps 10 loaded trains moving to the terminal south of the BP Cherry Point refinery each day, and 10 empty trains coming back.

Even if coal dust problems can be minimized, Ferris told those in attendance that the soot from diesel locomotives could harm their health, reduce the yield of their crops and the milk output of their cows.

He noted that the railroad tracks cross Highway 9 at several points between Wickersham and the Mount Baker Highway, and trains could delay emergency vehicles and school buses while discouraging people from patronizing local businesses.

The area now sees one morning and one evening train per day, residents said.

Jeff Margolis, owner of Everybody's Store in Van Zandt, is another organizer of the new group. He said the potential for major increases in rail traffic are worrisome. As of now, Margolis said, a 5:30 a.m. train whistle provides his daily alarm clock.

"I have a feeling if that happens every 45 minutes, it's going to affect the biorhythms of everyone in this room," Margolis said.

As Margolis sees it, there is little likelihood that BNSF will route all Cherry Point rail traffic through the valley the day the terminal opens - if it opens. The track needs significant upgrades, and the existing route would require transit through Canada to get to Cherry Point. Besides the border-crossing red tape, that arrangement also would require BNSF to share shipping revenues with Canadian railroads.

Margolis also noted suggestions that a new rail line could be completed across northern Whatcom County, linking Lynden to Custer and enabling cargo trains to head north along the South Fork and west to Cherry Point without going through Canada.

While that new rail link would be costly, time-consuming and complex, Margolis warned his neighbors not to be complacent. He said local rail line upgrades and rail traffic increases may be inevitable someday. When that day comes, it will be up to Whatcom County to make sure that overpasses are built to minimize auto and truck traffic disruptions.

"This track is bound to be improved," Margolis said. "If it's going to be improved, the county has a duty not to get stuck and not to stick the taxpayer. ... You're going to have to have overpasses. Because it is 10 to 15 years away, do not think that it is not possible."

For now, South Fork residents say they will do their best to maintain the status quo.

"This is a rural community," said resident Mary Ann Armstrong before the meeting. "We live out here for a reason: peace and quiet. ... I don't live in the city. I don't want the dirt. I don't live in West Virginia."