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Panel: Coal port would lift Whatcom economy

Panelists discuss the benefits of a coal terminal proposed for Cherry Point on Monday, June 22, in Bellingham. From left are Seattle-based union leader Lee Newgent, Washington State Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller, Bellingham-based union leader Mark Lowry, Western Washington University economics professor Hart Hodges, and Whatcom Business Alliance President Tony Larson.
Panelists discuss the benefits of a coal terminal proposed for Cherry Point on Monday, June 22, in Bellingham. From left are Seattle-based union leader Lee Newgent, Washington State Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller, Bellingham-based union leader Mark Lowry, Western Washington University economics professor Hart Hodges, and Whatcom Business Alliance President Tony Larson. The Bellingham Herald

People at an invitation-only meeting hosted by pro-business groups on Monday, June 22, heard a message most of them agreed with.

If the growth of Whatcom County’s post-recession economy is going to catch up to the rest of the state, it would help if a proposed 54 million-metric-ton export terminal for coal and other bulk goods was built at Cherry Point. That was the message during a panel discussion at the meeting held in Fox Hall at Hampton Inn.

The county lags the rest of the state in wage growth, according to statistics provided at the meeting by Hart Hodges, Western Washington University economics professor and director of the Center for Economic and Business Research.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, one of the speakers at the luncheon, reiterated his support for Gateway Pacific Terminal, saying it was one solution to Whatcom’s weak employment numbers.

Larsen cited median wage figures for 2012, pointing out that Whatcom County residents made 87 percent of the statewide median wage.

“Is there room for better-paying jobs here in Whatcom County?” Larsen asked. “The answer is yes.”

“I’ve supported the terminal project for the jobs it can create,” he added. “And I support a thorough review that provides a lot of opportunity for public comment.”

Tony Larson, the president of Whatcom Business Alliance and moderator of the panel discussion, said the business community needed to become more assertive in the conversation about Gateway Pacific Terminal, one that has been guided in the past four years largely by environmentalists opposed to the project.

Whatcom Business Alliance hosted the meeting with Northwest Jobs Alliance and Keep Washington Competitive.

“There are people because of the noise surrounding it who just don’t want to stand up and speak about it, but we have to,” Larson said. “If we want to lead in this community, we have to speak out and bring the adults to the table.”

Environmentalists interviewed after the luncheon met the business groups at their level, saying that Gateway Pacific Terminal’s potential for harm isn’t limited to increased train traffic, coal dust and diesel exhaust, and the release of climate change-causing carbon dioxide in Asian countries where the U.S. coal would be burned.

“The Gateway Pacific Terminal definitely threatens us environmentally, and we know that, but it’s also presenting a lot of serious economic concerns,” said Matt Petryni, clean energy program manager at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, based in Bellingham.

One risk posed by the coal terminal, Petryni said, was the potential it had for harming the herring population off of Cherry Point and disrupting the local fishing industry with increased vessel traffic to and from the terminal. Herring are a key part of a salmon’s diet.

SSA Marine, the applicant for Gateway Pacific Terminal, cites studies indicating that changes in the herring environment have more of an effect on its population than industrial activity at Cherry Point.

The fishing industry based at the Port of Bellingham provides 2,816 direct and indirect jobs, according to a Port of Bellingham study using 2013 data. The coal terminal after construction would create 1,251 total jobs, according to SSA Marine’s own study.

Communitywise Bellingham, another local nonprofit, released a study last week saying the coal terminal could do more harm than good to the economy, as a result of increased train traffic and the risk to Whatcom County’s reputation as a destination for experiencing natural beauty and a sustainable lifestyle.

The focus of Monday’s meeting, however, was on wages. Hodges published a study in late 2014 showing that the average wage of Cherry Point jobs was $114,000 a year, a number strongly influenced by the average annual wage at the two refineries: $156,210.

Mark Lowry, a panelist at Monday’s meeting and president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, said those are the kinds of jobs that pay mortgages and send children to college. Lowry wanted to make sure that elected officials in the audience, including many from Bellingham City Hall, heard that point.

“We are going to make some legacy decisions here in the next few years,” Lowry said. “We can reverse these (economic) trends. We have the tools to do it, if we have the political will to make these investments.”

The Whatcom County Council, which might decide on a permit for the terminal, was absent from the meeting. Council members have been advised by county attorneys to avoid information on the coal port, especially if it is going to be one-sided.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.

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