Seattle mayor didn't release coal study's findings for 5 weeks

This May 29, 2012 file photo shows a coal train leaving Seattle for British Columbia.
This May 29, 2012 file photo shows a coal train leaving Seattle for British Columbia. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mayor Mike McGinn called a news conference beneath Seattle's Great Wheel in December to announce he would request a study into the economic impact of sending more coal trains through Seattle.

But after the report was completed, the mayor waited for more than a month - and a public-records request - to quietly release the results on his blog Friday.

McGinn, who opposes the proposal to expand coal exports, wrote in a blog post that the study by local research firm Community Attributes showed the plan would have "a number of significant and concerning impacts" on Seattle.

But the plan's supporters described the report as a win and accused the mayor of sitting on it because it did not say what he had hoped.

"He was clearly not eager to release this report," said Lauri Hennessey, a spokeswoman for the pro-coal Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports. "He asked for this report, he didn't like what this report said, so he just put it away."

McGinn gathered the media to announce the $25,000 study in December.

The report's author, Community Attributes President and CEO Chris Mefford, said he submitted a rough draft to McGinn in April and a final version July 10.

McGinn's blog post was published more than five weeks after that - and within nine minutes of giving the report to The Seattle Times in response to a public-disclosure request filed the previous week.The mayor's post included a link to a memo from the anti-coal Sightline Institute that criticized the report.

The mayor had asked Sightline to critique a draft of the report in June, Mefford said.

McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus said the report was being tweaked for minor issues up until just before the mayor blogged about it Friday.

Pickus said the timing of the report's release was coincidental and not in response to The Times' records request.


The study itself paints a mixed economic picture for the plan to run up to 18 more coal trains a day through Seattle on the way to a proposed new Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Whatcom County.

Once complete, the proposed terminal would export up to 48 million tons of a coal a year to Asia.

The 58-page study, focused solely on Seattle impacts, found that the terminal would trigger some $28 million in permitting, engineering and public-relations work during construction, with an additional $2.4 million in annual, ongoing new jobs created.

The proposal might spur BNSF Railway to upgrade its Seattle rail infrastructure, which would help the city, according to the report.

But the plan also would increase congestion enough to cost city drivers and their employers up to $455,000 per year, according to the report.

It also could force the Seattle Fire Department to invest to improve its emergency response, with options ranging from a $150,000 new dispatching system to a more-than $100 million east-west bypass at South Lander Street, the study says.

And it would reduce property values near rail lines by between $270 million and $475 million, although that would theoretically be offset by property-value increases in other areas, according to the report.Finally, Community Attributes found that the proposal could hurt businesses and tourism because of increased noise and vibrations from the new trains. But it declined to quantify those economic impacts.The memo from the Sightline Institute criticized the study's authors for not trying harder to do that. It also said the report overstated the job benefits and understated the congestion and property-value costs.

Still, Sightline policy director Eric de Place said the study "demonstrates that there are some pretty steep costs for the city."Pickus, the McGinn spokesman, agreed.


But Bob Watters, the senior vice president for SSA Marine, which is proposing the terminal, said the report shows the plan is "an economic winner for Seattle."

"This report shows that the proposal would have a net-positive impact on Seattle if you're looking at the dollars and the monies being spent," said Watters, although he added the study overstated the costs because it assumed 18 coal trains would come through the city per day when it is likely to be nine.

Watters also criticized the timing of McGinn's release of the report.

A spokesman for state Sen. Ed Murray, who is running to unseat McGinn, joined in that criticism.

"If it's the case that the mayor suppressed a report because it didn't support his views, that's very troubling," said the spokesman, Sandeep Kaushik. "Transparency and accountability is critically important to the proper functioning of city government."

Kaushik added that Murray is "strongly opposed to coal trains coming through the city of Seattle, and as mayor will work to keep that from happening."The report's author said he was glad to give McGinn a balanced look at the issue.

"We thought it was serving the mayor well to give as much of an unbiased view as we could," said Mefford. "We feel really good that we did just that."Several other reviews of the project have been completed or are under way.

Last year, McGinn asked Parametrix to look into the proposal's impact on transportation in the city.

He also has asked the Puget Sound Regional Council to evaluate the economic impacts on the region.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County are each launching formal reviews of the proposal as part of a two-year, legally-required process.


Click here to get a copy (PDF) of the report from Community Attributes.