Bellingham's Coal Play

Is the massive coal-shipping port planned for Whatcom County a blessing or a curse?

People living in Bellingham have a pretty forgiving attitude toward the trains that rumble through town. The shrill whistles, the squeal of wheels, the waits at crossings—that’s just part of life in this laid-back college town. But now something else is roaring down the tracks, and it has the town’s full attention. About 800 people packed a recent meeting in Bellingham High School’s theater to learn more about the proposed $700 million Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would be located within the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve in the Strait of Georgia (part of the Salish Sea); there are already three industrial sites in the immediate area. The new port would ship millions of tons of coal—and also have the capacity to handle wheat and other commodities—from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming to China and other Asian countries.

Supporters herald the $140 million annual economic impact of the port, including payroll and tax revenues, the efficiency of using large “capesize” vessels that the site can accommodate and the thousands of good-paying jobs it would create. Seattle-based SSA Marine, the largest terminal operator in the country, estimates that construction would create 4,400 jobs during development and 1,250 long-term jobs. SSA has already entered into an agreement with Peabody Energy, a St. Louis‒based coal company, to export as much as 24 million metric tons of coal per year through the proposed terminal. “This project is still in the very, very early stages,” says Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He argues that when a $700 million project is proposed for his community, “the first thing to do is to welcome them to the community and sit down and work with them. That doesn’t mean that if there are impacts we can’t mitigate, we wouldn’t be opposed to it in the long run.”

But opponents of the project say increased coal-train traffic and coal dust will impact the health, safety and quality of life of Bellingham residents. They also worry that water quality and herring spawning grounds within the aquatic reserve will be harmed from effects of coal dust, stormwater runoff and possible fuel spills, and be put at risk for a possible oil spill caused by vessel collisions and grounding. The level of early opposition has come as a bit of a surprise to SSA senior vice president Bob Watters, who is point man on the project in community meetings and telephone town halls. “People who are opposed to it are not going to change their minds,” he says. “It’s the people who are undecided that we have to convince.”

Numerous environmental groups are mounting major anti-coal least five other coal projects have been proposed for Washington and Oregon

Already on board are local labor leaders, such as Chris Johnson, business manager of Laborers Local 276. “It would be big for us,” says Johnson. “It would empty my hall, and I’d have to take on other people—apprenticeship opportunities for young guys who want to start a pension plan and get health care.” Those family-wage blue-collar jobs are hard to come by in Whatcom County, where the cost of living approaches Seattle’s, but average wages are 20 percent lower, Oplinger says.

Still, opponents say there is more at stake than jobs. “This will destroy our quality of life and impact the health of the people in this community,” says Matt Krogh, the North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a nonprofit environmental advocacy and education organization. “They want to build the terminal in one of the most beautiful and historically most productive ecosystems in the Salish Sea,” says Krogh. “I’m not sold on the argument ‘Hey, why don’t we get a few jobs and destroy herring, Dungeness, salmon and orca habitats in order to enrich multinational corporations while devastating small rail communities at taxpayer expense?’ That one doesn’t work for me.”

Krogh and other opponents point to stories of coal dust drifting from Westshore Terminal in British Columbia and settling on boats and cars in nearby Point Roberts. SSA Marine’s Watters counters that 40-year-old Westshore, built on open water, is outdated and lacks the latest containment technology; the new facility would meet or even exceed current standards. Much of the impact in Bellingham would come from the estimated nine round trips of coal trains added to the three or four trains that currently pass through the town daily. Each train would have at least 125 cars, extending one and a half miles long. That’s too much for some residents.

“I am fourth generation in Bellingham,” says Julie Trimingham, a local filmmaker and writer. “I love this area. I feel very protective of it.” To that end, Trimingham has started a website, Coal Train Facts (, which she says offers accurate information on the project, including health and economic impacts. Her concerns include noise, traffic wait times at crossings, diesel emissions and the impacts on the marine environment. Labor leader Johnson, however, points to Bellingham’s long relationship with trains. “We’ve had coal trains coming through Bellingham close to 40 years,” he says. “In fact, trains are the most economical, environmentally friendly way to ship goods over land.”

Watters says increased train traffic is inevitable, whether the Gateway Pacific Terminal is built or not, thanks to expansion plans for the Westshore Terminal and two other terminals in British Columbia, which will bring increased train traffic through the Pacific Northwest. Says Watters: “The question is ‘Do the jobs and economic benefits come to Washington state or do they go to Canada?’” Krogh argues that expansion plans for Canadian terminals are to transport Canadian coal, not U.S. coal, so the job question is moot.

At the Chamber of Commerce, Oplinger says he expects Burlington Northern to “come to the table” to look at ways to mitigate the impact of the trains, including possibly moving tracks that now cross the new waterfront redevelopment site and creating a “quiet zone” through Bellingham, which would eliminate train whistles by requiring double crossing arms, fencing near the crossing to limit pedestrian access and other safety measures. “Rather than try to fight it off, if we can find ways to work with the railroad and mitigate the effects, we would be much better off.”

The environmental impact statement process, scheduled to begin this summer, could take more than three years. “It should be done well, it should be transparent and it should be thorough,” Watters says. “We may not know all the impacts either, so let’s let the process run.” Political leaders are waiting to see where it goes. Karina Shagrin, a spokesperson for Governor Christine Gregoire, says the governor “is aware of the economic benefits, but she wants to see the regulatory process play out before she takes a position.” Democratic U.S. Representative Rick Larsen, who represents Whatcom County, supports the project because of the jobs it will create, but urges residents to express concerns through the “scoping” process now under way.

That process is sure to be hotly debated. Krogh argues for a regional scope, pointing to possible impacts of increased train traffic from Spokane, along the Columbia River Valley, and through Seattle. The BNSF Railway Company, for its part, says it’s not clear yet which—if any—Seattle tracks will be used, but Krogh and others aren’t buying it. “This will have real impacts on the entire state,” he argues. In May, the Seattle City Council, which ultimately has no say in the matter, unanimously passed a resolution to oppose the development of coal export terminals in the state. In July, Democratic U.S. Representative Jim McDermott introduced a new national bill that would levy a $10 tax on every ton of extracted coal to help states address the adverse effects of its transport. The bill would also require rail companies to take measures to supress coal dust. The Sierra Club’s Coal-free Washington, Earth Justice and numerous other environmental groups are mounting major anti-coal campaigns; besides the Gateway Pacific Terminal, at least five other coal projects have been proposed in Washington and Oregon.

Port supporters worry that environmentalists are going too big-picture, measuring impacts that span from the mines in the Powder River Basin through the Pacific Northwest and across the ocean to the smokestacks of China. They complain that general opposition to coal as an energy source is playing a big part in efforts to stop the project, which is really about transportation and jobs. “[Coal is] being mined and it’s being shipped,” Johnson says. “Stopping this project is not going to keep one ounce of coal from being burned.”


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