GPT Project Background
On February 28, 2011, Seattle-based SSA Marine, one of the largest port operators in the world, filed an application with Washington State to build North America’s largest coal export facility roughly 15 miles north of Bellingham. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would be located at Cherry Point, both within the designated “industrial zone” and the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.
That same day, the company also announced it had entered into a contract with Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, to ship up to 24 million metric tons (MT) of coal per year from Cherry Point. That represents half of the port’s planned capacity of 48 MT of coal, the vast majority to be shipped across the Pacific to an energy hungry China. The Gateway proposal also includes plans to construct a second 6 MT export pier to handle bulk commodities such as grain, potash and other goods, should a future market and sufficient demand be identified. The existing contract between SSA and Peabody to export 24 million annual tons of coal is for forty years, representing nearly a billion tons of coal. If built to full capacity, the terminal would have a coal export capacity of 48 MT, almost twice the size of B.C.’s Westshore Terminals (just north of the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal south of Vancouver, British Columbia).
SSA Marine proposed an export facility for the Cherry Point site in the 1990s. However, the current proposal is of a new scope and includes coal, in this way differing substantially from the project permitted by Whatcom County in 1997. The earlier proposal outlined a terminal that would handle eight million tons a year (compared to the 54 MT of today’s proposal) of bulk goods, most likely grains, and no coal at all. The new project proposal also has a substantially larger on-site footprint, greatly expanding likely wetland impacts and introduces entirely new alterations to two miles of on-site waterways.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway would transport the coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, through northern Idaho and across Washington to the export terminal at Cherry Point. BNSF already runs three to four open-car coal trains daily through Bellingham to the Westshore Terminal in Vancouver, British Columbia. (See Communitywise Bellingham’s Coal Train Count from July 2011 documenting these numbers.) Indeed, the most immediate impact on Bellingham from the new terminal will come from the additional rail traffic—some 18 trips per day (nine trains loaded with coal on route to the port, nine empty returning to Montana) at full build out—that would be required to supply the port. Carrying 125 to 150 open cars of coal each, these heavy locomotives span approximately 1.5 miles in length with diesel engines both front and back. Traveling to and from the port, this increased coal train traffic would run directly through Bellingham each day.
This volume of train traffic presents an array of issues for transportation and commercial businesses. For a greater discussion of this questions, please see our list of Critical Issues to Include in the Environmental Impact Study. That the primary commodity being shipped will be uncovered coal poses another set of potential environmental and health related issues for our greater community. In addition, the additional train traffic through Washington communities raises concerns about the increase in air pollution near the rails from diesel particulate matter from the train engines. Learn more about this issue from the Whatcom Docs.
SSA Marine’s March 2012 permit application to Whatcom County states that the port will create 89 jobs at half build-out and 213 at full build-out, most of these longshoreman positions. SSA also projects the two-year construction phase to create some 1,700 direct family-wage jobs (short-term) and as many indirect jobs during this period. Additional information on SSA’s forecasts including 10 million in tax revenue can be found in the GPT’s Project Information Document. Bellingham will not receive any of the tax revenue directly. Details on employment projections can be found in the Martin and Associates employment study commissioned by SSA as well as a review by the local consulting firm FMRC. You can read a summary here or the full reports here.
Costs and Risk
In addition to benefits, any large project will come with costs and risks. For the public and officials to make an informed evaluation of the project’s merits, looking at the complete economic picture is essential. Substantial costs–possibly passed on to local taxpayers–can be expected in order to mitigate impacts (those that can be mitigated), and the project poses possible risks to other economic activities and employment.
In particular, the substantial increase in train traffic along Bellingham’s waterfront could have consequences for commerce in the area including the redevelopment of the Georgia Pacific site. The March 2012 report by PFM, Inc. (commissioned by Communitywise Bellingham) found that the rail traffic impacts from the coal terminal could mean fewer jobs for Whatcom County, not more. Read the report’s complete findings, watch the report briefing, and read the media coverage on the issue here.
The Lummi and Nooksack tribes have also voiced concerns about the possible negative impact of tanker traffic and coal dust on their fishing grounds in the Cherry Point area. In addition, the impact of coal dust and tanker traffic on the Bellingham fishing fleet merits study as well.
The Gateway Pacific proposal is actually for two terminals. One is a bulk terminal that can handle six million tons of grains, potash and other commodities. It will not be built as part of initial construction. Sufficient market demand will be required to justify its cost of development. The primary terminal is a coal port. If built to its full 48 million metric tons of capacity, it will be eight times larger than the bulk terminal. It adds an 80-acre footprint to stock piles of coal and accommodates eight railroad tracks. Half of this capacity is already secured through Peabody Coal’s Powder River Basin holdings. Read more about his issue and view CWB’s ad in the Bellingham Herald and Cascadia Weekly.