BELLINGHAM, Wash. — On a warm, sunny Saturday at the Bellingham Farmers Market, as I was winding through the outdoor aisles of organic produce, hand-crafted items, and singing co-eds, I thought it might be difficult to find someone to talk to me about coal.
Well, not just about coal. I wanted to know how residents of Bellingham feel about the Gateway Pacific Terminal. It’s the proposed terminal just north of Bellingham at Cherry Point that would provide a launching pad for coal traveling by train from Wyoming and Montana to China, a country where coal is in high demand.
The project is a long way from reality. If approved, the first phase of construction would potentially begin in the second half of 2015. That is only after a lengthy environmental review process that could take as long as three years to complete, according to Bob Watters, director of business development for SSA Marine, the Seattle based company that is proposing to build the terminal.
SSA Marine recently submitted more than 300 pages of documentation to Whatcom County planning officials addressing issues such as train traffic, environmental impacts, and job creation. This summer, Whatcom County regulators will seek public comment and then an environmental impact study will begin with various phases of public education and comment happening throughout the process.
Many Bellingham area residents aren’t waiting until this summer to have their say. At the Saturday Farmers Market, it wasn’t difficult to find people with an opinion on the coal trains and the proposed terminal.
I found Cynthia St. Clair taking photos around the market. She’s retired and has lived in Bellingham for 10 years.
“I am for a sustainable economy and coal is not sustainable,” St. Clair said.
Aside from the environmental concerns, she is also worried about what the increased train traffic would mean to emergency services.
“What’s going to happen when an ambulance or a fire truck is stuck waiting at the train tracks for a-mile-and-half train to pass?” she said.
Bob Ferris has a straight line of sight to the train tracks from his home near Bellingham in Fairhaven. He’s lived there about two years. Ferris is definitely concerned about the increased train traffic and what that will mean to his sleep, peace of mind, and property values. But what worries him most is the health concerns — specifically, particles released from the diesel exhaust.
“There could be as many as triple the amount of trains that come by here today and you can’t see those diesel particles; they can seep into your house. There is no way seal your house enough to keep them out,” said Ferris.
The health effects of 18 or more mile-and-a-half trains a day (by some estimates) is of such concern that more than 180 physicians from Whatcom County have banded together — calling themselves the “Whatcom Docs” — to oppose the terminal. According to the Whatcom Docs, diesel particulate matter is associated with many lung and heart related illnesses.
Yet, the need for more jobs is also top of mind for many Bellingham residents.
I found Sheryl Hershey walking through the market gathering signatures for an issue at the Bellingham Port. She thinks that many of the environmental arguments are short sided. She has lived in Bellingham for 25 years, but she grew up about a half a mile from a coal mine in Pennsylvania and says she has had no ill health effects. She thinks the terminal is an important element to helping the local economy.
That’s a point that Watters emphasized as well.
“There is a huge demand for coal from China and the trains will still be going through Western Washington. So the question is: Do the jobs and the tax revenue go to Canada or to the Bellingham area?” Watters said.
According to SSA Marine’s estimates, the terminal would bring in 4,400 jobs during the construction period and 1,200 direct and indirect jobs once the terminal is built.
Currently, British Columbia has three terminals that export coal.
Rob Streit echoes that sentiment. He moved to Bellingham four years ago to be closer to his family.
“If we don’t get it [the terminal], somebody else will. Why not capitalize on it? We’re either going to grow or die,” Streit said.