BELLINGHAM - Mayor Dan Pike and the two candidates challenging him for reelection are all taking a cautious approach on the SSA Marine proposal for a Cherry Point shipping terminal that could handle large amounts of coal as well as other cargoes.
The fate of that project, the Gateway Pacific Terminal, will rest with state and federal regulatory agencies and with Whatcom County.
But SSA Marine won't need permission from City Hall, even if the project does mean 10 coal-laden trains rumbling through the city each day at the maximum capacity now being discussed.
The issue poses some political pitfalls for anyone who wants to be mayor of Bellingham. That office generally goes to the person who succeeds in attracting the support of neighborhood and environmental activists plus organized labor. But while environmentalists and some neighborhood leaders gear up to fight the coal port, local labor leaders have already closed ranks with SSA Marine, which is promising union jobs for construction and longshore workers.
Both Pike and former state legislator Kelli Linville are stressing the importance of making certain that the rail traffic impact on Bellingham is thoroughly studied as a part of the environmental impact statement process. Then, if it is determined that rail traffic could do significant economic or environmental harm to the city, the project's proponents could be required to take steps to compensate for that harm.
The third candidate in the mayoral race, Clayton Petree, also wants more information before taking a firm position for or against the Gateway Pacific project.
"It is way too early in the process to make proclamations regarding the proposed cargo terminal at Cherry Point," Petree said in an email. "We don't yet know what the impact on Bellingham, especially on Bellingham's own waterfront, might be.
At a Wednesday, May 4, forum sponsored by the Sierra Club, Pike said he wants to schedule a community meeting later this month to gauge citizen sentiment.
"All of us deserve to have questions fully answered," Pike said. "It deserves a robust community dialogue to ascertain what is really in the best interests of our community."
Pike again called for a hard look at routing more trains via the lightly used rail line that enters Whatcom County at Wickersham and moves north alongside Highway 9 through Acme, Deming and Nooksack to Sumas. Using that line would minimize negative impacts on "population centers, business centers and shorelines," Pike said.
Without at least some diversion of rail traffic to the eastern line, Pike said it might be more difficult for passenger trains and local freight shippers to use the main line through Bellingham.
"It's prudent to have alternatives in an area like ours," Pike said.
Pike said he also wants to know how the extra rail traffic will affect the city's waterfront redevelopment, emergency access to Boulevard Park, and the homes on the bluff over the tracks along Eldridge Avenue.
Linville and her husband, attorney Will Roehl, have lived in one of those homes for the past 28 years.
As she sees it, rail traffic through town is a serious concern, even if it remains at current levels. She said she and her neighbors already notice deposits of what appears to be diesel exhaust soot on their properties. She wants to know what can be done to reduce diesel emissions from locomotives.
While Linville shares many of Pike's concerns about the noise and pollution from trains, she said she doesn't favor dealing with that issue by rerouting rail traffic through the east county.
During her years in the legislature, Linville said she supported eventual development of a shipping terminal on what is now the SSA property at Cherry Point. But until recently, it was not clear that a substantial amount of the cargo at that terminal would be coal.
"I did not support a dedicated coal port," she said. "I'm opposed to a single-purpose port. I support a final pier up there that supports multiple exports."
She also said she fought for steps to phase out coal-fired power in this state while she was a legislator.
"I don't support coal-burning," she said. "I would much rather be exporting clean energy technology to China. ... We should be investing in what we want to have happen, instead of fighting what we don't want to have happen."
She acknowledges that the SSA facility would mean substantial tax revenues as well as jobs, but she said the economic and environmental tradeoffs remain to be identified.
"We need to find out what the impacts are and have the impacts mitigated," Linville said.
Petree said he was concerned about the possibility that increased coal train traffic will happen with or without Gateway Pacific, if Canadian coal ports expand capacity.
"If Bellingham is to be impacted either way, I prefer the jobs be here and the material handled in a terminal with modern environmental protection," Petree said.
Environmentalists who oppose the project argue that the potential increase in Canadian coal port capacity is nowhere near the potential maximum size of SSA's project, and some of the Canadian port expansion could serve Canadian coal that would not move through Bellingham.
While Petree wants to promote job creation, he said he's not yet ready to join the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry and local labor leaders in pushing for approval of the new port.
"This is a time to listen, learn, and participate - not leap one way or another based on speculation about something we don't yet know enough about," Petree said. "In this case, the boldest approach is caution."