Will Trains Bring 48M Tons of Coal a Year Through Seattle? Not If the Locals Can Stop It
Three years after Big Coal and its partners in rail and shipping announced plans for a giant export terminal on Puget Sound in Washington state, organized citizen pushback appears to be gaining ground.
Opponents of the terminal dominated the meetings with speeches ranging from the personal and emotional to those giving precise scientific data.
Agencies charged with review of the terminal announced on July 31 that their guidelines will be unprecedented in scope, taking into account environmental, rail-traffic, and climate-change impacts of plans to transport coal across the state by rail, then ship it across the Pacific to the yawning furnaces of Asian power plants.American coal companies are losing domestic markets to cheaper natural gas, and environmental regulations have forced the closure of old coal plants that don’t meet pollution-control standards. Coal companies that operate the enormous strip mines of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin have turned their focus to export to Asia through ports in the Northwest, as have oil companies seeking new markets for the prolific Bakken shale oil field in North Dakota. Oil and coal trains could be running side by side through crowded rail corridors in the Pacific Northwest if the numerous proposals for export terminals are approved.
The proposed $664 million Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, Wash., would be the largest coal port in the United States. Meeting its capacity to handle 48 million metric tons of Powder River Basin coal a year would require 18 unit trains a day (9 loaded and 9 returning empty). A unit train is a mile and a half long, and communities along the route have complained about potential traffic delays, noise, and coal dust from the trains.
When SSA Marine announced plans in late 2010 for Gateway Pacific, the plans to scale up export of coal, a major contributor to climate change, immediately drew fire from environmentalists. A campaign opposing the terminal began in the small, green-friendly city of Bellingham, and developed into the umbrella organization Power Past Coal, spearheaded by the Sierra Club, a longtime coal opponent. The coalition includes a host of community, health, and environmental groups.
Cesia Kearns, who directs the campaign, praised the review ruling from the Washington State Department of Ecology and Whatcom County, where Gateway would be located, as "a reflection of Northwest values—the depth and breadth of the scope is absolutely on target and appropriate given the impacts this project would have on our way of life."
Bob Watters, senior vice president of SSA Marine, the terminal’s developer, saw it otherwise: "The state is setting new precedent with the broadness of this scope," Watters said in an email. "This potentially has negative impacts on Washington state’s trade. ... It has potential negative impacts for future rail and infrastructure improvements required to support a vibrant and growing state economy."
The region's two governors are climate hawks.
The terminal’s opponents demanded and got an extensive public commenting process. Seven public meetings were held in towns and cities along the export route. About 8,000 citizens showed up at the meetings—many with signs and bright pro-terminal or anti-coal T-shirts and all with an opinion. The online commenting process drew 16,000 people who entered individual statements, while online petitions against the terminal gathered 109,000 signatures.
Opponents of the terminal dominated the meetings with speeches ranging from the personal and emotional to those giving precise scientific data. Only in the town of Ferndale, Wash., near Gateway's proposed site at Cherry Point, was there a strong pro-terminal turnout. Terminal backers launched a robust advertising and public relations campaign stressing jobs for local blue-collar workers and tax benefits for local governments. The "jobs, jobs, jobs" mantra has a limited geographic appeal, however: The farther from the terminal, the fewer the jobs and the higher the negatives of the coal trains.
Map of coal train routes is by Earthfix and is used with permission.
The review process is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as state and county agencies. The Corps, operating under federal rules, defined a narrower scope than the state agencies but is also examining claims by Native Americans that GPT intrudes on sacred burial sites and traditional fishing grounds. The Lummi Nation, whose ancestors fished and hunted on the terminal site, rejects Gateway's offers to mitigate the damages, and calls for denial of permits, a demand the Corps says it must consider. Native Americans were prominent among speakers at the public hearings and are reaching out to tribal and community groups from Montana to British Columbia.
Gateway Pacific is the first of three coal-export terminals proposed in the Pacific Northwest. The two-year process of determining a scope of review for Gateway is about to be replicated for Millennium Bulk Terminals, a 44-million-ton coal port at Longview on the Columbia River’s Washington shore. Permits will also be needed at Boardman, on the Oregon side of the river, where trains would transfer coal to barges for shipment through three major dams to a site near the town of St. Helens where coal would be transferred to ships. That proposed complex would handle 8 million tons of coal a year.
Coal companies are already competing for slots at the Northwestern terminals; Peabody Coal has a contract for 24 million tons and Cloud Peak for 16 million tons at Gateway; Arch Coal and Cloud Peak are in line at Millennium. Some U.S. coal is currently shipped through ports in British Columbia, but capacity is limited. The big American terminals are central to the industry’s plans to increase exports, particularly for companies heavily dependent on Powder River Basin coal.
The big engineering firm handling the environmental review has already racked up a $1.8 million bill just for the scoping process.
Recent months have also introduced the Northwest to unit trains bearing crude oil from the burgeoning Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, more than a thousand miles from refineries in Washington. When a Bakken train exploded in Quebec in July, killing more than 40, train safety was suddenly added to the agenda.
Combined, the coal terminals and the unexpected onslaught of crude-oil trains threaten to overwhelm local railways. Critical sections of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line such as the Columbia River Gorge and tracks along Puget Sound are already overburdened and could be overwhelmed by increased traffic from the massive unit trains if the new proposals are accepted.
The bill for millions of dollars in road and overpass upgrades could be foisted onto communities. That has towns and cities entering into alliances with major climate-change organizations such as the Sierra Club. The commuter city of Marysville, Wash., for example, has 11 train crossings at street level; Cheney, near Spokane, is bisected by railroad tracks. Added train traffic also threatens to disrupt traffic to the busy Port of Seattle and would cross scenic neighborhoods to the north of the city.
A massive disconnect exists between the way the energy industry views coal exports and the "green" agenda of the Pacific Northwest, which has perhaps the most environmentally aware population in the United States. If opponents use the broader review to delay or even stop the terminal, the decision could affect international trade, climate change, and world energy markets.
Climate change plays strongly in the region's largest city; Seattle is a hotbed of environmentalism, and the Sierra Club is very active. Mayor Mike McGinn is only one of several public officials with direct links to green organizations. The region’s governors—Jay Inslee of Washington and John Kitzhaber of Oregon—are climate hawks, and urged agencies to take a broad look at the terminals. The Washington Department of Ecology says Inslee played no role in its decision to include climate change impacts in its review guidelines, but describes him as "comfortable" with the ruling.
The big engineering firm handling the environmental review has already racked up a $1.8 million bill just for the scoping process. Gateway must pay the tab. A draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is expected in about two years, triggering more hearings before a final EIS is sent to the permitting agencies.
That in turn triggers the most political portion of the process. Elected officials in Whatcom and Cowlitz counties (the latter is the site for Millennium) will determine two of the major permits, but the Corps and Washington Ecology also have major roles to play, along with several smaller agencies. In the case of Gateway, the proposed terminal adjoins a state aquatic reserve, and the state's elected Commissioner of Public Lands must grant a lease under a strict set of guidelines.
Floyd J. McKay wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Floyd is professor emeritus of journalism at Western Washington University and was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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