Editor’s note: This article was updated Friday, June 3 to include statements by Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike and Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Those statements are at the bottom of the page.
The Gateway Pacific Terminal is in the early stages of environmental review, but debate on the proposed Cherry Point shipping terminal is well underway.
Groups began speaking out both in support and in opposition to the project soon after SSA Marine submitted documents Feb. 28 to start the environmental review process for its $500 million cargo terminal.
On the one hand, the terminal has the potential to raise Whatcom County’s median income and generate $11 million per year in tax revenue.
On the other hand, it would also increase the number of trains traveling through Bellingham, and opponents are concerned about the environmental and quality of life issues that could arise with more trains chugging through the area, many of which will be hauling coal.
It’s estimated that during the project’s two-year construction period, 4,000 jobs would be generated through direct hiring, employee spending and purchased goods and services; and then, once the project is complete, the terminal would support 430 direct, family-wage jobs at full capacity.
That kind of job creation has caused legislators and local labor and industry representatives to speak up in support of the project.
In early May, Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, teamed up with Dave Warren, president emeritus of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, to encourage citizens to support the project.
“Whatcom County is suffering economically. Nearly half of our construction workers are unemployed and high-wage industrial employment has shrunk to the lowest level in 20 years,” the two said in a May 11 press release. “Now we have the chance to bring in the long-sought fourth and final industrial anchor at Cherry Point. We can’t afford to let this opportunity pass us by.”
The two formed the Northwest Jobs Alliance specifically in response to a growing vocal opposition to the project, Oplinger said in an interview. The organization gives supporters of the project the opportunity to be heard, too, he said.
“My concern is that there be a fact based and science based community dialog without hype and fear mongering, and that’s on both sides of the issue.” Craig Cole, terminal project spokesman
At the same time, some people, including Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike and Bob Ferris, executive director of the nonprofit RE-Sources for Sustainable Communities, fear that increased train traffic could negatively affect Bellingham’s marketability.
More train traffic means more noise and longer wait times at rail crossings if it goes unmitigated. Both Pike and Ferris said they are concerned about the effect that could have on Bellingham’s waterfront redevelopment, which is expected to support an estimated 8,354 employees. Trading thousands of jobs for the hundreds that would be directly created for the terminal isn’t a good idea, Pike said.
But, Oplinger said with trains headed through the area to terminals in Canada, train traffic will continue to increase with or without the Gateway Pacific Terminal.
“Increased train traffic is coming and we may as well benefit from it,” Oplinger said.
Train traffic fluctuates based on market demand for commodities, Suann Lundsberg, director of media relations for BNSF Railway Company, said in an email interview. Currently, an average of 15 trains per day pass through Bellingham.
If the terminal is built out to full capacity, it could handle up to nine trains per day, but at this point it’s difficult to estimate the extent of the build out because that will also be based on market demands, project spokesman Craig Cole said. So far, there aren’t customers in place to justify going to full capacity, but that could change.
“Here’s the problem: we’re talking about a project that won’t be operational for four years from now,” Cole said. “Forecasting demand that far out is difficult.”
The exact number of trains the terminal would bring to the area remains to be seen, but that hasn’t stopped Pike from pushing for an alternative train route through Sumas.
Lundsberg said that route has been studied and determined not to be a feasible alternative because it would require building approximately 15 miles of new rail, rehabilitating 38 additional miles of rail, acquiring between 100 and 150 acres of land, crossing the Nooksack River, building between two and three miles of new rail in the floodplain alongside the Nooksack River and disturbing up to 20 acres of wetlands.
Still, Pike said alternative routes should be considered.
“I’m going to continue to push for that as something that is looked at,” Pike said.
Pike is also pushing for the environmental review to include potential impacts to Bellingham.
“The EIS (environmental impact statement) must consider the significant impacts this project will have on Bellingham, especially the potential impacts — noise, coal dust, traffic delays, bank destabilization, crossing safety and much more — of increased rail traffic through our neighborhoods.”
Ferris said the increased train traffic would not only cause more noise pollution, it would also mean more air pollution in the form of diesel particulates released as the trains chug along.
Human health is one concern, but so is economic health. Pike is concerned the terminal could hurt Bellingham’s standing as a sustainable community, which could scare away the types of businesses that he would like to see continue to move here, he said. That’s because many of the trains headed to the terminal would carry coal.
Burning coal releases pollution and so does mining and transporting it. Layers of coal dust have been found along transport routes and have caused track maintenance issues, Lundsberg said, but it has only been a problem near mines. And railcars that are properly loaded address coal dust problems, she said.
That doesn’t mean, however, that coal dust would not be an issue in the unloading process, and Ferris is afraid the dust could fall into the water at Cherry Point, where there is a spawning ground for a recovering herring population.
We will soon know if that issue will be studied in the environmental review process. State and federal regulatory agencies are in the first part of the environmental review process now — determining the scope of environmental issues that will need to be studied before construction permits are awarded.
In the meantime, Cole said he hopes people will keep an open mind about the project and base their perspectives on facts rather than emotion.
“My concern is that there be a fact-based and science-based community dialog without hype and fear mongering,” Cole said, “and that’s on both sides of the issue.”
SSA Marine hopes to get its permits by 2012 and open the new terminal by 2015.