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Washington’s coal train controversy pulls in to Seattle

A BNSF train hauling coal to British Columbia heads north out of downtown Seattle. If a Gateway Pacific Terminal near Cherry Point is built, it's estimated 38 to 63 additional trains will pass through our state. (AP/Elaine Thompson photo)

There are very few issues that rattle people all over Washington State. A proposal to build a $665 million coal terminal near Bellingham is one of them.

Coal, the combustible black sedimentary rock that melted iron in furnaces and generated the steam for locomotive engines hundreds of years ago, is still used today.

It generates nearly 45 percent of the electricity in the U.S. and China is the largest consumer of coal in the world.

Most of the coal in the Western U.S. comes from Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.

You don’t need a math story problem to answer the question, if a train loaded with coal from the West is bound for China which state does it likely pass through?

Coal trains are already chugging through Washington.

If a planned Gateway Pacific Terminal near Cherry Point is built, an estimated 38 additional trains will roll through our state each day – including 18 a day in Seattle. Nearly 140 million tons of additional coal will be sent to China and other Asian customers each year.

The Cherry Point area is also home to the largest oil refinery in Washington. It’s located northwest of Bellingham on the Strait of Georgia between Birch Bay and Lummi Bay.

“We came up with 22 reasons why this is a really bad idea,” says Stoney Bird, a former corporate lawyer and Bellingham environmental activist.

Opponents’ reasons range from “very local stuff,” he says from noise and health problems for people who live beside the tracks, to impeding emergency vehicles that need to cross tracks, to the further wiping out of the herring stock at Cherry Point.

“There are environmental concerns with freighters which are the largest in the world, twice the size of the oil tankers that are allowed in Puget Sound now,” says Bird.

Getting coal from its source, the earth’s crust, involves digging large pits.

“The mines are dotting our country,” says Bird. “Even greater is the global warming that will result from the burning of the coal.”

The process of burning coal “releases a poisonous cocktail of gases into the environment.” Carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and small airborne particles of coal are released.

One estimate from opponents of the Cherry Point plant says the amount of carbon dioxide from a single coal plant equates to the same effect as cutting down 161 million trees.

Coal supporters say increasing exports will boost the US economy and create jobs.

Business leaders in Bellingham believe SSA Marine, the project sponsor, has the ability to build the most “environmentally sound” shipping terminal in the world.

Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen is among those who support the coal terminal. He believes Whatcom County needs more good jobs. In addition, the terminal will be a “good citizen” paying taxes along with wages.

Employment has been an issue in the region since the closure of the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill in Bellingham in 2001, although Whatcom County’s unemployment rate – 6.4 percent – is lower than the state average of 8.2 percent. The development could bring up to 4,400 jobs to the region.

The export terminal is expected to generate $74-$92 million in state and local tax revenues.

If the environmental review is approved and the export terminal project gets a green light, Peabody Coal, the nation’s largest coal company, would begin shipping 24 million tons of coal a year through the facility. The shipments would be ramped up to 48 million tons.

SSA Marine of Seattle would operate the terminal, while Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway would also benefit with an increase in its hauling business.

While many public hearings are ignored, the meetings to talk about coal have been crowded and contentious.

A meeting scheduled in Seattle last month had so much interest they had to find a bigger venue. That hearing is now set for Thursday, December 13 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Washington State Convention Center.

Seattle has also been studying the impact of 18 coal trains per day passing through the city.

A study commissioned by the Seattle Department of Transportation found the coal trains would increase delays at railroad crossings by between one and three hours per day by 2026.

Not only would drivers be stuck at crossings longer, according to the Parametrix study, but there could be an increase in police and fire response times for emergencies, particularly in Seattle’s SoDo area.


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