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Cherry Point Coal Export Facility Would Impact Health, Community, and Waterfront Business


“Building a coal export terminal in Washington represents a step in the wrong direction,” says Ferris. “What century are we in if our economic future is pinned on the hopes of shoveling coal? There is a better path for Bellingham – and Washington.”

Mar 01, 2011


BOB FERRIS, E.D. (360) 733-8307 bobf@re-sources.org


MATT KROGH, North Sound Baykeeper (360) 820-2938 mattk@re-sources.org

Today SSA Marine (a Carrix company) filed for state and federal permits to build a 54 million metric ton coal export facility at Cherry Point in Ferndale, Washington. SSA Marine’s Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) proposal projects storing up to 2.75 million metric tons of coal at a time in an open-air 80 acre stockpile.

This news comes on the heels of Peabody Energy announcing a partnership with SSA Marine to export 24 million metric tons annually for the life of the terminal, at a time when coal consumption in the United States is anticipated to decrease.

“SSA Marine’s move is a little like someone picking out china patterns before the end of the first date,” says Bob Ferris, Executive Director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. “I think that SSA Marine will find that this is not speed dating, and that Bellingham and Whatcom County hold their own virtue and reputation in high regard.”

“Building a coal export terminal in Washington represents a step in the wrong direction,” says Ferris. “What century are we in if our economic future is pinned on the hopes of shoveling coal? There is a better path for Bellingham – and Washington.”

It is unclear how SSA Marine plans to control coal dust from the stockpiles, with their permit application stating that stockpiles “may” be sprayed for dust suppression.

In Seward, Alaska, years of failure to control terminal dust have led to a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, while at Robert’s Bank, BC, coal dust has depleted oxygen in nearshore habitats and coated boats more than five miles to the southeast in Point Roberts, WA. While the GPT site isn’t as exposed as the Robert’s Bank facility, hundreds of acres of wetlands, miles of streams, and dozens of farms are all at risk of coal dust contamination driven by powerful southwest winds in the autumn and winter.

Local health impacts from coal export are a real concern.

“Exporting coal out of Bellingham would pose a triple threat to our public health. Coal dust has been linked to respiratory diseases. Mercury, released during coal combustion, is a potent neurotoxin. Coal’s contribution to global warming is substantial and puts our health at stake,” says Cherie Eichholz, Executive Director of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.

According to a University of Washington study, coal combustion in Asia is the number one source of new mercury contamination in Lake Whatcom, Bellingham’s drinking water supply. But the health impacts aren’t only local.

“Religious communities across America realize that mining, transporting and burning coal is a terrible threat to the poorest people, at home and around the world,” said Jessie Dye Program & Outreach Director, Earth Ministry & Washington Interfaith Power and Light. “From the valleys of Appalachia to the waters of Bellingham Bay, the effects of coal-fired pollution are destroying the air and water that we count on to give us our daily bread. Selling our coal to China is the same as selling our children’s future for someone else’s profit.”

In Bellingham, traffic concerns and future development have also created strong local resistance. SSA’s proposal means that 1.5 mile long coal trains will pass through Bellingham’s downtown up to 18 times a day, effectively cutting off access to a long-term waterfront redevelopment area for three hours a day, and impacting local businesses adjacent to or on the wrong side of the tracks. The waterfront redevelopment project in Bellingham on the site of the former Georgia-Pacific pulp mill is anticipated to attract up to $2 billion in redevelopment moneys—but it will be hard to attract investors if you have to wipe coal dust off the ‘for sale’ signs.

“This is like a tale of two Bellinghams,” says Matt Krogh, North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources, “one Bellingham reaching for a sustainable, clean future, and the other clawing its way to the past.”


Fact sheet on the impacts of SSA Marine’s GPT proposal


Coal Dust for the Community: Coal dust would be a huge problem. At Cherry Point it would blow all over sensitive herring habitat, compromise water quality, and travel inland to dairies, ranches, and raspberry fields. Likewise, coal dust scattered all along the route would foul water and generally lower the quality of life for all.

Proponents of the project will argue that state-of-art best management practices will be employed in every aspect of the handling of the coal, but we have heard that before in places like Seward, Alaska where the railroad and coal company are currently being sued for Clean Water Act violations or Robert’s Bank in British Columbia where oxygen depletion is being observed in nearshore habitats and coal dust is an issue at a marina five miles from the facility. In these cases, as in others, performance speaks much louder than promises.

Human health risks from toxins:
Mercury pollution is a serious threat to human health with pregnant women and the unborn most vulnerable to this peril. And while we have been working hard to stop domestic sources of this deadly element, the same cannot be said of operations in Asia. The shipment of this coal to China would result in more mercury in our water. A recent University of Washington study documented that the main source of new mercury in Lake Whatcom and other Washington waterways is from Asian -- primarily China.

Habitat and economic impacts:
The GPT site is directly in the path of a once robust herring grounds, the Cherry Point Pacific herring. These herring are the primary food source for endangered spring Chinook, once the primary food source for orcas in Puget Sound. The GPT proposal includes filling of 141 acres of wetlands.

According to SSA Marine’s own proposal, the project could impact 12 species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act including Bull trout, Marbled murrelet, Chinook salmon, Steelhead trout, Coho salmon, Humpback whale, orcas, Steller sea lion, Leatherback sea turtle, Bocaccio, Canary rockfish, and Yelloweye rockfosh.

Added Traffic and Coal Dust:
Moving 54 million metric tons of coal in uncovered railcars is a tremendous undertaking requiring an additional nine, mile-and-a-half long trains daily traversing to and from Cherry Point through downtown Bellingham – 18 total every day.

According to BNSF’s website, these 15,000-ton trains would lose three percent of their load in transit or 1,780,000 short tons of coal dust spread annually from the Powder River Basin to the terminal.

In addition to noise, increased diesel exhaust, and traffic delays the City and County would also have to deal with nearly 600 pounds of coal dust per foot of route. “What kind of legacy is that for Bellingham? The City of Bellingham would be left with coal dust, traffic and likely drops in property values.”

Isolated Waterfront = Wrong Turn for Redevelopment: The Waterfront Redevelopment Project represents significantly greater job prospects over a longer period of time than the Cherry Point project. Much of the success of the proposed $2 Billion waterfront redevelopment project depends on attracting investors and users willing to pay premium prices for condominiums, office space, and marina slips. Waterfront businesses would likely suffer isolation given traffic disruption interruptions for significant parts of the day. It is economic folly to pursue a projecting yielding minimal community benefit at the expense of one that will provide larger potential benefit.

Increased Public Expenditures for a Private Facility: Although SSA Marine promotes the fact that they would be paying $10 million annually in taxes, we think that is inadequate considering the anticipated public investment required. Federal law prohibits railroads from paying more than ten percent of cost for safety improvements such as at-grade crossings. Since these increased train traffic levels obviously require significant safety improvements, this would seriously impact public coffers.

Increasing Climate Change:
A lot of impacts of this project can be avoided, mitigated, or reduced, but there is no escaping the fact that these shipments will result in approximately 150 million tons in new greenhouse gasses annually. We can ignore or rationalize this factor because its impacts feel removed (until the next flood or wildfire) from our day-to-day lives but we really do so at our peril.

Physical Disruption: This project proposes to change the physical characteristics of the site in a significant manner including impacting 162 acres of wetlands and altering roughly 2 miles of existing waterways. Since this area could provide habitat or needed ecological function for 11 federally protected species and seven state protected species, the exact extent of these modifications is extremely important.

Geological Peril:
Coal trains are long and heavy (i.e., one and half miles long and up to 15,000 tons). These trains are so heavy that they tend to flatten the rails which in turn is the cause much of much of the wheel squealing we hear during transit. These same extraordinary forces that impact tracks also act on local geology. Given that much local development is on vulnerable or unstable formations, this is a great concern that needs to be examined.

Increased Cancer Rates: In addition to the mercury threat identified above, studies of the impact of train-generated diesel exhaust in Stockton, California indicated a clear relationship between the proximity to train traffic and cancer. Their study observed a doubling of cancer rates within a zone of 200 yards of the rail operations. While Bellingham projected traffic levels are less than Spokane or Stockton, the relationship between diesel particulates and cancer is well-documented at multiple locations.


Human and Property Safety: Even at our current traffic levels we have a number of train caused deaths. This escalation of traffic would likely increase that number. In addition, coal dust distributed on rail beds is being credited with causing train derailments because the dust inhibits proper drainage of rail beds. A train derailment in downtown Bellingham would have disastrous consequences.


Reversing our Regional Reputation: Many individuals, organizations, and companies have worked very hard to create a regional character or brand that emphasizes the perfect balance between urban and rural; industrial and natural; and looking towards the future while embracing the best aspects of the past. This mixture has led to Bellingham being identified as one of the happiest and most sustainable cities in North America and is a source of pride and an important aspect of our collective self-identity. Being perceived as a portal to the single most destructive energy source on the planet completely jeopardizes this balance, our hard-earned reputation, and—ultimately—our happiness.




RE Sources for Sustainable Communities is a sustainability organization that fully embraces the notion that the economic, environmental, and social aspects of a project must be fully and fairly evaluated in order to determine feasibility and desirability. Their programs include: the North Sound Baykeeper, an educator and advocate for the marine waters of Whatcom and Skagit Counties; The RE Store, seller and salvager of used building materials; The Sustainable Learning Center, a place to gather and learn about sustainable practices; and Youth Programs in the schools, focusing on waste, air and climate change. http://www.re-sources.org/


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