The controversial proposal for a major coal-export port to be built at Cherry Point near Bellingham hit two big setbacks this week: environmentalists broke off talks with the developer, SSA Marine, which was also caught building a road through forested wetlands without proper permits.With this news still fresh, we’re taking the opportunity to publish the second installment of the package we posted earlier this summer by Western Washington University journalism students who took an in-depth look at the proposal. Briefly, here are this week’s developments:
By Rachel Lerman and Celeste EricksonOfficials in Ferndale are optimistic about how potential industrial development at the Gateway Pacific Terminal would help their struggling community.“Everybody paid for Intalco,” Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen said of the 2001 shuttering of a major aluminum smelter that is now running again. “The (Gateway) terminal would be important for the county because of those increased tax values. It will allow us to keep up with the growth of the county.”If built, the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would stand between two existing heavy industries at Cherry Point, west of Ferndale, the BP Refinery and Alcoa-Intalco Works.The proposed location would be outside the city limits in an unincorporated area.Tax revenue from the project would go to sectors in Whatcom County including Fire District 7 as well as the Ferndale School District. The estimated property tax and new construction revenue would be divided into several public service districts in Whatcom County such as fire districts, schools, roads, libraries, cemeteries, emergency medical services and water and sewer systems.The bulk of new money would come from the taxes levied during construction of the facility.The 1,092-acre site would pay an estimated $54 million per year in state and local taxes during construction, and about $10 million annually after that.Additional tax revenues generated by building the terminal could help keep tax rates low, said Whatcom County Assessor Keith Willnauer. After construction is completed in two to three years, the property would continue to buoy local tax coffers.Officials hope to also see a spillover effect into Ferndale proper. Ferndale has available land for industrial and retail growth, Jensen said.“When industrial development does well, that affects a lot of people. Right now we are hurting,” Jensen said.
By Raymond Flores and Andrew DonaldsonWestern Washington UniversityThe tiny nub of forested land poking into the sheltered Strait of Georgia represents a diverse aquatic environment surrounding potentially hazardous, but economically healthy, industry. Rural Cherry Point, west of Ferndale, is the new epicenter in a raging debate over global commerce.The state aquatic reserve at Cherry Point, established in 2000, engulfs three industrial wharfs and could be home to a fourth if the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal is built. A new dock, trestle, commodity storage area and conveyor belts would mean development on 350 acres of the 1,200-acre project site.The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Management Plan was adopted in 2010 by the Department of Natural Resources to protect and restore marine habitat, aquatic vegetation and water quality around what was the state’s largest herring stock – one that is now struggling, worrying conservationists. Aquatic reserve lands are set aside for their environmental, educational or scientific interest, according to the management plan.The management plan was put into effect for the protection of valuable aquatic lands, but recognizes historical use of aquatic zones for industry and commerce. The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve makes up 227 of the 2.6 million acres included in the Washington State Aquatic Reserve Program.Cherry Point, an unicorporated area zoned for high-impact industrial use, has been the home of the BP and ConocoPhillips oil refineries, as well as the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter, for decades.
By Olivia Henry and Rebecca TachiharaWestern Washington University The debate over the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal has been framed as Community David vs. Corporate Goliath, rural livelihoods vs. city NIMBYism, high-wage jobs vs. clean environment. The final concept pits two political bases of the Whatcom County Democrats against one another: unions hungry for jobs and environmentalists concerned about their community becoming the gateway through which coal travels to be burned in China. Local environmentalists argue that jobs versus environment is a false dichotomy. They describe the debate as “jobs versus jobs,” citing concerns for the vitality of Bellingham’s redeveloped waterfront, which is divided from the rest of the city by the rail line that would serve the proposed terminal with as many as 20 trains per day.Nobody, however, is arguing that the local economic picture is rosy.The debate comes at a time when the county’s unemployment rate has surged from 4.9 percent in 2000 to 8.4 percent this May. Residents living below the poverty level accounted for 15.5 percent of the county’s population in 2009 (the most recent U.S. Census figures available), which was higher than the state average of 12.3 percent, and nearly double the rate of 7.8 percent in 2000.
By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne Graff
Western Washington UniversityWashington state is eliminating coal-fired power in an effort to reduce harmful emissions. China is attempting to reduce emissions using new technology for burning coal.“Individual coal plants have different efficiencies and pollution rates. A plant in China may be more or less efficient than one in Washington based on the technology at the plant,” said Justin Brant, climate change policy analyst for the Washington Department of Ecology. “That said, climate change is a global issue and greenhouse gases produced in China have the same effect as those produced in Washington or anywhere else.”Clean coal technology includes a variety of ways to reduce emissions. The five major emissions associated with coal burning are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, mercury and carbon dioxide, said Brad Tomer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Major Demonstrations.Technologies exist or are currently under development to control these five types of emissions. Of particular controversy is the existence of carbon capture and storage: a process the Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimates could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent.“It’s not futuristic in the sense of pie in the sky,” Tomer said. Carbon capture and storage has its skeptics. Craig Benjamin of the Environmental Priorities Coalition said, “That doesn’t exist. It’s kind of like a unicorn: people like to talk about it — they’ve been talking about it for 30 years — but there’s no example of it.”
By Gina Cole and Brianna GibbsWestern Washington University BELLINGHAM – From its early days as a thriving logging and fishing port, through the decades of housing Georgia-Pacific West, Inc.’s paper mill, Bellingham has always had a working waterfront. Most of those industries are now gone, but even as the city prepares to transform 220 waterfront acres, it has repeatedly emphasized the need to maintain a working waterfront and increase public access to the water.The plan is still preliminary, but the city has already invested $2 billion in waterfront cleanup to eventually renovate the area with commercial spaces, university classrooms, offices, shops, eateries, a park and even a new public library or aquarium.However, a bulk-shipping terminal proposed at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, could bring train traffic that many are concerned would interfere with the city’s vision for waterfront development.Seattle-based SSA Marine, a company specializing in marine terminal operations, is proposing to build a shipping terminal north of Bellingham that could hold as much as 54 million tons of bulk commodities including coal, wheat, potash (a mineral used in fertilizers), and calcined coke (a byproduct of oil refining), said SSA Marine consultant Craig Cole. SSA Marine has already signed a contract with coal giant Peabody Energy to ship 24 million metric tons of coal, equivalent to filling 370 football fields almost 15 feet deep. The terminal would have the capacity to ship double that.If the terminal were built and operating at full capacity, the coal and other bulk commodities would be brought to the terminal via an estimated 18 additional trains that would pass through Bellingham and Whatcom County, Cole said.
By Carolyn Nielsen and Andrew DonaldsonWestern Washington UniversityBELLINGHAM – The proposed coal and bulk shipping terminal at Cherry Point faces a key decision –– expected Friday, June 24 –– as the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department decides whether to require the terminal’s proponents to obtain a new permit to build a pier northwest of Bellingham.Pacific International Terminals, a joint venture of Seattle-based SSA Marine and Vancouver, B.C.-based Westshore Terminals, Ltd., submitted its application June 10 for a 350-acre shipping terminal on land and a pier that extends into a newly designated aquatic reserve.The company asserts that it already has permission to build the pier because the county issued a permit for one in 1997.Local and regional environmental advocacy groups are urging the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department to reject the application because the permit was approved under outdated environmental regulations.A June 17 letter to the county planning department from the non-profit law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Climate Solutions, the Sierra Club and Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities accused proponents of trying to subvert updated environmental standards in constructing the first phase of the project, the pier.Email petitions from RE Sources and Communitywise Bellingham circulated widely on Thursday, calling on Whatcom County residents to contact the planning department and speak out against accepting the application.
By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne GraffWestern Washington UniversityBELLINGHAM – Coal has fueled American electricity for more than 100 years, but on April 29, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation to end coal-powered electricity in Washington. In an effort to reduce air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change, Washington’s only coal-fired power plant, in Centralia, is obligated to stop burning coal by 2025.As Washington stops using coal for its own power, it could begin shipping coal to China’s power plants. Whatcom County could become one of the largest coal exporters in the United States and the largest on the West Coast if SSA Marine’s proposed 350-acre terminal is built at Cherry Point, west of Ferndale.SSA Marine estimates its proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal could ship up to 48 million tons of coal to China each year if it reaches full capacity, which the company predicts would happen by 2026.Environmentalists and many concerned Whatcom County residents are asking whether this project fits with the spirit of the new state law. The environmental groups argue that coal, whether burned in China or Washington state, produces emissions harmful to human health.“A ton of carbon dioxide or a ton of coal burned, whether in China or the U.S., is going to have the same impact as far as climate change is concerned,” said Dr. Dan Jaffe, University of Washington professor of atmospheric and environmental science.Air pollutants are swept into the atmospheric cycle and have a global reach, traveling from Asia to the United States every 10 days, Jaffe said.
Have you ever had to wait for a train at, say, Broad Street in Seattle, right by the SAM Sculpture Park? Or anyplace else along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that hug the coast of Puget Sound?Imagine roughly doubling the train traffic on that railroad. Imagine further that each of these new trains is a mile and a half long. That’s a lot of waiting at railroad crossings.But critics of the Gateway Pacific Terminal – the proposed coal-exporting port near Bellingham that would service those very long trains full of coal – say that’s only the first of many impacts on communities and the environment because of the terminal’s overall purpose: sending up to 48 million tons of coal to China every year.Topping the list of environmental impacts is climate change. The Chinese would burn a *lot* of coal, the most climate-unfriendly of the major energy sources. Plus there are the greenhouse gases emitted bringing the coal here from the Power River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. And – oh, yeah –air pollution created in China can find its way to our shores in just a week and a half.On the other hand, you may have noticed that financially, many of our neighbors are hurting. The proposed coal-exporting terminal west of Ferndale would mean hundreds of jobs – those “family-wage” jobs that are increasingly hard to find in Western Washington. The naturally deep port at Cherry Point would not need to be dredged, proponents of the terminal point out. And the Powder River coal is low-sulfur, meaning it creates less lung-attacking pollution when burned than the higher-sulfur coal the Chinese might obtain from elsewhere.