Train, or Pain?: As Cherry Point plans move forward, critics question impact on local rural lands

On her drive to the Glen Echo Community Center in Everson, Nicole Brown passed farm after farm, took in the cloudy scenery and reflected on life in rural Whatcom County.

Brown was headed to a public forum organized by Safeguard the South Fork, a citizen group she helped start in response to the potential construction of the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, proposed by Pacific International Terminals, a subsidiary of SSA Marine Inc. of Seattle.

The group’s focus: To include the impact of coal trains on rural life in the terminal’s looming environmental assessment process.

“How are we going to continue the farming traditions? People move here to start family farms,” Brown said to an audience of about 50 people at the March 8 meeting. “These coal trains are so long and so big. They would have a transformative effect on our small communities.”

The forum was the first in a series of public meetings the group has organized through the end of April.

Specifically, Safeguard the South Fork is calling for the environmental review to include the terminal’s potential impacts on rural residents’ health, farm crops, livestock and land use, as well as possible added taxpayer expense for necessary infrastructure improvements should coal trains eventually rumble through the county.

Group member Joe Knight said the overall focus of the grassroots organization is not squared solely on coal, but on protecting a lifestyle its members hold dear.

At the heart of their advocacy, however, are the trains. And the members of Safeguard the South Fork are adding their voices to an increasingly heated debate over whether Cherry Point should be the future home to such a project – one whose detractors say will be disaster for local life, even as its proponents counter with the influx of new jobs and the potential economic boost that could materialize along the way.


Job creation is a major component of SSA Marine’s push for construction. The company says the terminal at full capacity would employ more than 400 people, and could potentially support more than 1,000 new workers in the local economy. It also expects the project to generate millions of dollars in tax revenue and local economic activity.

The economic benefits have driven regional support for the terminal. Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat representing Washington state’s 2nd Congressional District, has expressed favor for the project as he enters campaign season with job creation as a key election strategy.

The job claims have been disputed by groups opposed to the terminal.

A March 2012 report created by Public Financial Management Inc. for Communitywise Bellingham, a nonprofit group opposed to the project, suggested that the terminal could actually result in a net loss of jobs if it impacts other economic growth in Whatcom County.

SSA Marine is moving along.

On March 19, it filed a revised Project Information Document with county planning officials, and company executives say they plan to be open and cooperative throughout the environmental review process, expected to begin this summer.

“We have put a lot of time and effort into being as responsive and thorough as possible,” Bob Watters, SSA Marine’s senior vice president and director of business development, said in a press release the day the document was filed. “We realize the public has a high interest in our project. While today’s filing is an important step, we look forward to addressing all these issues in even greater depth as the public review of the project moves forward.”

The proposed deep water terminal, located on a 1,200-acre parcel approximately 18 miles northwest of Bellingham and five miles east of Ferndale, is planned to ship up to 54 million metric tons per year of dry bulk commodities to Asian markets, if it reaches full capacity by 2026. Its initial volume, should construction be completed within the next few years, is expected to be about 25 million metric tons.

Through the first 10 years of its life, the terminal would likely handle petroleum coke, potash, grain, and of course, coal, although it would be designed to adjust to shifts in future commodity demand.

Coal, brought by train from mines in Montana and Wyoming, would be by far the major export commodity handled by the terminal, at least for its first decade.

To handle the trains, SSA Marine would construct two railroad loops connected to a short rail spur near the town of Custer. The spur splits off from the main coastal route of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. running between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. It connects the Cherry Point area to the main route.

Currently, BNSF runs two daily round-trip trains through the Custer line to serve the industrial operations already located at Cherry Point, including the BP refinery.

In the terminal’s initial stages of operation, SSA Marine estimates the facility would handle five 125-car trains daily, each up to 7,000 feet long. At full capacity, the number of trains would increase to nine.


It’s the capacity of the spur near Custer to handle the additional trains the terminal would bring that has members of Safeguard the South Fork worried.

If the number of trains expected to service the terminal does materialize, a bottleneck could form at the entrance to the Custer spur, according to a May 2011 rail congestion and freight delay study prepared by the Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute for the Whatcom Council of Governments.

Knight, who lives in a house in the shadow of Sumas Mountain near the border, said congestion exists all along the railroad corridor between Seattle and Vancouver B.C. At certain locations, including Chuckanut Bay south of Bellingham, tracks are situated right along the water, making any potential upgrades extremely difficult and costly, he said.

He’s convinced, as are other members of the group, that BNSF may consider rerouting trains away from the waterfront route and onto more inland tracks. Increased traffic on a 47-mile stretch of rail between Burlington and Sumas cutting through Whatcom County, is of particular concern.

It was the same route that former Bellingham mayor Dan Pike suggested as an alternative path for coal trains in March 2011. County residents hotly opposed the proposal.

Executives from BNSF have said using the Burlington-Sumas route as an alternative for coal trains up the coast is impractical.

According to the Cascadia study, in interviews with BNSF officials and in reviews of earlier rail studies, the cost of necessary upgrades that would allow the route to handle the increased traffic would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The members of Safeguard the South Fork simply aren’t convinced.

Even if coal trains don’t roll along the farm route, Knight said county rail lines could also be used to handle extra freight trains rerouted from the coast to make room for coal.

“We’re saying that it’s inevitable that there’s going to be increased train traffic on those tracks regardless of what else happens,” Knight said.

Jim Abernathy, a retired county resident and member of the group, said through the entire process of organizing Safeguard the South Fork’s forums, he’s been impressed with the level of citizen action in Whatcom County against big-money interests he thinks could have a negative effect of regional quality of life.

While there are a number of anti-coal groups lending their voices to the debate over the terminal, and not all of them necessarily see every issue eye-to-eye, in the big picture, local residents concerned about the impact of coal trains on rural land share a similar end.

“We find that we have different priorities and different agendas, but what we do have is a mutual concern,” Abernathy said. “We don’t want coal trains out here in the farm land.”

Safeguard the South Fork is holding two public forums in April. The first will be held on April 4 at Ten Mile Grange in Lynden. The second is on April 19 at Acme Elementary School. Both are from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.  

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


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