Documents: Cherry Point initial cargo would focus on coal, produce fewer jobs

Despite proponents' talk about grain and other cargoes, the Gateway Pacific cargo terminal proposed for Cherry Point will concentrate on coal exports, especially in its early years of operation, developers say in an official document.

The full-time work force at the terminal in those early years also might be far below the 280 permanent jobs that project developers have touted for the terminal.

The coal emphasis and the jobs estimates are spelled out in a "Project Information Document" submitted to regulatory agencies in February by SSA Marine of Seattle, the would-be developer of the project.

SSA spokesman Craig Cole said he and other company representatives have been using a 280-job figure that is based on an estimate of how many direct permanent jobs the SSA terminal would create in its early stages. Besides workers directly employed in the cargo operation, the 280-job figure includes administrative staff at the terminal, railway workers and ship pilots, tugboat crews and other marine service workers not on SSA's payroll.

When those types of jobs are added to the estimated totals, the Gateway Pacific project could generate 430 direct jobs when and if it reaches full capacity, Cole added in an email.

"The project will be built out to meet demand, but because we're still four years away from becoming operational, these are cautious preliminary estimates which are in the process of being refined and vetted," Cole's email said. "If customers are in place, the full build-out could occur sooner, or even right away, but it's too early now to predict what the market will look like four or five years out. Infrastructure projects typically ramp up their volumes over time and the information in the PID document describes one scenario. Of course, with low initial volumes also come lower impacts, such as fewer trains."

In its Project Information Document, SSA says it plans to build two track loops on its 1,100-acre site to get rail cars to a deep-draft pier to load their cargoes on Asia-bound ships.

The East Loop would be constructed in the first phase that SSA hopes to begin in 2013, after environmental studies have been done and permits are in hand. If the project can break ground that quickly, the East Loop could be completed by 2015.

"It is anticipated that the East Loop would predominantly handle low-sulfur, low-ash coal," the project document states.

After the first phase of construction is complete, the terminal could handle a maximum of 25 million tons of coal per year and would have 89 employees if the terminal is open for three shifts a day as operators expect, the document says.

The West Loop for other cargoes would not be complete until 2017, the document says, and it would add just 6 million tons per year of additional capacity.

By 2017, the document says, the full-time work force would be 160.

After that, the labor force would increase as capacity is added, based on demand.

"When fully developed the Terminal is expected to employ 213 people," the document says, estimating 2026 as the possible year for the facility to reach its full 54-million-tons-per-year capacity.

While the West Loop could handle grain, the SSA document expects other cargoes.

"It is anticipated that the Terminal would initially manage export of calcined petroleum coke and potash from the West Loop storage area," the document says.

Potash is a key ingredient in agricultural fertilizer. Petroleum coke is an oil refinery byproduct produced at BP Cherry Point.

In Bellingham, much of the public concern about the project has centered on the increase in train traffic through the city, on a BNSF mainline that runs between the waterfront and the rest of the city.

During its first phase of operation at 25 million tons annual capacity, the project would generate five trainloads of cargo per day, SSA estimates. Those trains would travel though Bellingham and Ferndale loaded, and would return empty on the same route.

By 2026, if it reaches full capacity of 54 million tons per year, the terminal would attract eight loaded trains, but SSA expects the size of trains to increase from 125 cars initially to as many as 150 cars.

While the Gateway Pacific documents contain some preliminary estimates about traffic delays from rail traffic on county roads near the site, they appear to contain nothing that addresses that in Bellingham.

But once the environmental impact statement study process gets under way, effects on Bellingham could be on the agenda. Regulatory officials will determine what issues need to be studied after completion of "scoping," which will include a public meeting.

The Bellingham City Council recently sent a letter to Whatcom County planners and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to urge that rail traffic impacts on Bellingham be evaluated, as well as the impacts from noise, coal dust and diesel emissions. They also want the project study to estimate potential losses to property values along the rail line and on the waterfront.

"If unmitigated, the great increase in train traffic has the potential to undermine waterfront growth and investment by creating significant problems with noise, traffic blockage, air pollution and safety concerns, thereby putting at risk millions of public dollars and thousands of potential jobs," the letter states.