Congressional race draws line on coal terminal debate

By Scott Rasmussen | Journal of the San Juans Editor
Courtesy to the Bellingham Business Journal

With results of a full-blown environmental review yet to come, it could be months before a verdict is handed down on the giant export facility proposed to be built at Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham.

Longer still before any potential construction might begin, and even longer before any super-sized cargo ship passes through the Salish Sea bound for Asian markets with that would-be export facility’s first shipment of raw coal.

But with just two weeks left before the Nov. 6 election, the controversial Gateway Terminal Project emerged last week as a campaign issue in the race for Washington state’s 2nd Congressional seat, in which Republican challenger Don Matthews is attempting to unseat Democrat Rep. Rick Larsen, a six-term incumbent.

“(Larsen) has refused to offer any constructive suggestions about the terminal and refused to listen to the worries of citizens who will be affected by it,” Matthews said last week in a widely distributed press release. “He simply encourages citizens to ‘get involved’ by attending public scoping meetings regarding the project instead of showing real leadership and guiding this issue toward a workable resolution.”

If approved and then built, the $650 million Gateway Terminal would be the largest bulk export facility on the West Coast, perhaps in the nation.

At full capacity, it would be capable of storing and exporting up to 54 million metric tons of coal per year. The coal would be transported from Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin by rail, with as many as 18 coal trains, each more than a mile long, circulating daily through the facility.

On the export side, the coal would be carried to Asian markets to be used as fuel by as many as 480 jumbo-sized container ships, the smaller of which measures more than three football fields in length, through the Salish Sea and San Juan waterways each year.

After depositing their load, those ships would return to Cherry Point with a belly full of ballast water from overseas.

At a candidate forum Oct. 12 in Friday Harbor, Larsen said construction of the terminal and the jobs it would create offer an economic boost. He noted the facility would support “more than 1,000 family-wage jobs” and, at an average of $90,000 a year, that’s nearly twice the average wage in Whatcom County.

According to Seattle-based SSA Marine and Peabody Coal, proponents of the facility, construction of the terminal would create 1,715 to 2,115 jobs, depending on the size of the facility, and another 300 or more employees would be needed to operate the plant following its construction.

Larsen encouraged islanders to ensure that their concerns about the would-be terminal are included as part of a federal environmental impact statement by attending a Nov. 3 “scoping meeting” in Friday Harbor. The meeting, one of four in the region, is noon to 3 p.m. at Friday Harbor High School.

(A meeting is scheduled in Bellingham from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27, at Squalicum High School)

As required under federal law, the scope of the EIS will determine the amount of impact the terminal and its operations will have on the region and the extent of “mitigation” that would need to be done to avoid or lessen those impacts.

Larsen said the agencies responsible for the EIS, which include the Army Corps of Engineers, Washington state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County, must have the freedom and authority to reach their conclusions “without my involvement.”

He added that if mitigation is needed, it should be paid for by the industry.

On that point, Matthews and Larsen agree.

According to Matthews, however, an additional $1 should be added to the per-ton price of coal so that those those who purchase it are paying to offset the impacts of coal trains, such as air and noise pollution, and traffic congestion.

In addition, in his press release Matthews calls for increasing the size of the U.S. Coast Guard in Puget Sound so that maritime and shipping laws can be better enforced.

Contact Journal of the San Juans Editor Scott Rasmussen at or 360-378-5696.

This article was originally published Oct. 25, 2012.

The Journal of the San Juans ( is a sister publication of the Bellingham Business Journal. Both are owned by Sound Publishing Inc.

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