Job Claims: Backers of proposed coal terminal say local employment would surge

In assessing the economic and employment impacts of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, consultants with SSA Marine, the Seattle-based company behind the project, as well as those with anti-terminal community groups have plenty of data, but few ironclad predictions.

For Dave Eichenthal, a financial forecaster and consultant with Public Financial Management, which was hired last year by the nonprofit Communitywise Bellingham to assess the economic impacts of the proposed terminal, the more people know about the project, the greater chance they’ll have at making the right choices.

“All anybody wants is certainty, and unfortunately when it comes to economic development projects like this, there usually isn’t very much,” Eichenthal said during a March 6 community presentation. “You do tend to generally reach better decisions the more information you have.”

Eichenthal’s report is the first in a series Communitywise has planned examing the potential environmental and economic effects the terminal could have on the region.

The group, which formed last year with to address the potential impacts of the Gateway terminal, says its intention with the report series is to provide solid, independently researched resources for community members who may be affected by the project.

Craig Cole, senior consultant to the Gateway Pacific Terminal, said in an April statement getting working families linked up with new, good-paying jobs is Whatcom County’s best path toward a sustainable future.

“I know and respect the Communitywise folks, but we may have differences of opinion on the urgency of the need for high-wage job growth for working families through industrial development like the Gateway project,” Cole said. “Their report speaks in hypotheticals, whereas we are talking about real investment dollars and family-wage jobs.”

Terminal touts thousands of jobs

SSA Marine released its own report in July 2011, created by the consulting firm Martin Associates, which found the terminal would support more than 3,500 full-time equivalent jobs during its initial construction phase.

The company plans to start construction after the environmental review and various regulatory hurdles for the project are cleared – a process that could potentially be completed by 2014.

During its initial operation, when the company plans to use the terminal to ship up to 25 million metric tons of dry bulk materials  – nearly all of which would be coal transported by train from mines in the Powder River Basin region spanning Montana and Wyoming – the Martin report found it would support up to 863 direct, indirect and induced jobs.

The report defined direct jobs as those generated by the physical movement of bulk cargo, as well as other daily business at the terminal, including railroad agents, workers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, ship operators and freight forwarders.

Indirect and induced employment were defined as ulterior jobs created in surrounding Whatcom County communities from purchases of goods and services made by directly employed terminal workers, as well as as from firms in the area doing business with the terminal.

Job creation is a major argument pushed by SSA to garner support for construction of the terminal.

At a time when the unemployment rate remains above 8 percent in Whatcom County, and even higher in surrounding regions, more jobs can be a compelling factor toward gaining supporters.

Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat representing Washington’s 2nd Congressional District, has been an outspoken backer of the project, saying it’s a positive step to improving the state’s economy and attracting more employers to regions battling high unemployment.

“Exports are a surefire way to get our economy moving and grow good jobs in the community,” Larsen said in a February 2011 statement.

“I am pleased to see a Washington-based company making a major private investment in our nation’s export infrastructure.”

The Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry also voiced support for the project in a July 2011 resolution from its board of directors.

A coalition of state labor and industry groups, including the Washington State Labor Council, the Puget Sound chapter of the ILWU, Puget Sound Pilots and the Washington State Building and Construction Trade Council, sent a January 2011 letter to Gov. Gregoire saying their support of the terminal was driven by the need to create more family-wage jobs, particularly in Whatcom County.

“The local community has the work force available and the training programs ready for this project,” the labor leaders wrote. “The Gateway Pacific Terminal project will produce much needed family-wage construction jobs and permanent jobs.”

Opponents fear broader impacts

Taking a broader scope, the Communitywise study looked at the potential impact the Gateway terminal could have on established Whatcom County industries such as tourism, as well as the impact the project could make on the Waterfront District redevelopment undertaken by the Port of Bellingham.

The study found if other economic growth strategies underway were negatively impacted by the terminal, the end result could be a 17 percent loss in job growth from 2012 to 2021.

“I think where our work begins to diverge from what’s already been done is the extent to which we at least raise issues related to potential costs,” Eichenthal said.

The greatest risk to job growth, according to the study, is noise and traffic that would come with the increase in trains carrying coal through Whatcom County to the terminal.

SSA Marine estimates the facility would handle up to five coal trains daily during its initial stages of operation. The trains would have up to 125 cars loaded with coal, and each one would be about 7,000 feet long, according to a revised Project Information Document submitted by the company to county planning officials on March 19.

The study predicted the extra trains could make Bellingham and Whatcom County less attractive to professionals and entrepreneurs, particularly those living in the city. About 60 percent of all jobs in the county are in Bellingham, according to the study.

A group of anti-coal and community organizations, including the Sierra Club, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and the Power Past Coal Campaign, has been a visible and vocal force in the county against the terminal’s construction.

Opponents of the terminal have focused their efforts on the environmental review for the project.

State ecology officials should start the review this spring, which will assess the impacts of the terminal on the region’s environment.

Communitywise leaders say studies are needed on other aspects of the proposed terminal, including who would pay for rail crossing upgrades in the county likely to be needed to support additional trains and potential impacts to tribal fisheries near Cherry Point.

Dozens of other communities  along the rail corridor that would face risks similar to Bellingham and Whatcom County, yet would receive none of the potential economic benefits.

“This study shows the coal port could be a net negative for job growth in Whatcom County,” Shannon Wright, Communitywise Bellingham’s executive director, said the day the study was released. “It is an important first step in helping neighbors and the business community better understand the economic  trade-offs, but there are still many unanswered questions about how coal export could impact our economy, public health and safety and quality of life.”

This article was revised on Nov. 13, 2012. An earlier version misstated the number of jobs the Martin Associates study reported the terminal could support during its initial operation. 

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