Help Protect Cherry Point and Whatcom County

SSA Marine 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 proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) projects storing up to 2.75 million metric tons of coal at a time in an open-air 80 acre stockpile. 

Moving 48 million metric tons of coal in uncovered railcars is a tremendous undertaking requiring nine additional mile-and-a-half long trains traversing daily to and from Cherry Point through downtown Bellingham. In addition, to increased train noise,  diesel exhaust, and traffic delays, the city and county will also have to deal with a significant increase in the amount of coal dust entering our neighborhoods and waterways.

This project will have serious economic, health, social, and ecological consequences to our community. If you are concerned about this issue and its negative impacts on Whatcom County, please read and sign onto RE Sources' position statement, and send a clear message to your local representatives. 
March 2011

Dear Elected Official:

SSA Marine has mounted a large-scale marketing and lobbying campaign in favor of a coal terminal at Cherry Point; we are very concerned that SSA Marine is being heard while the voices of ordinary citizens, those who will bear the impacts of the proposed project are not.  Although SSA Marine's remarks emphasize the economic value of the project to Whatcom County and its citizenry, we urge you to take time to consider the full spectrum of positive and negative impacts associated with this project before taking a public position.

Because RE Sources for Sustainable Communities is a sustainability organization, we fully embrace 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.  In our research and evaluation of this particular project, we have uncovered significant concerns in all three aspects of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.  While some of these concerns can be avoided or mitigated to some extent, a large body of issues cannot.  Below in brief are our major concerns.

We must first begin with facts and assumptions.  SSA Marine has stated that their intent is to ship 54 million metric tons of material, through the Cherry Point facility annually, of which 48 million metric tons will be coal.

Moving 48 million metric tons of coal in uncovered railcars is a tremendous undertaking requiring nine additional mile-and-a-half long trains daily traversing to and from Cherry Point through downtown Bellingham.  According to BNSF's  website, these 15,000-ton trains will 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.  So, in addition to increased noise, diesel exhaust, and traffic delays, the City and County will also have to deal with a significant increase in the amount of coal dust accumulating in our neighborhoods and waterways.

Economic

We feel the negative economic consequences of this project are likely massive and include the following:

Property Value Loss: The City of Bellingham alone has roughly $15 billion in real value which will be potentially devalued by noise (wheel squeaking and horn blasts), coal dust, and traffic.  Property value drops as small as one percent can have tremendous consequences in terms of individual worth.  These potential impacts need to be addressed in the public discourse.

Business Isolation: Waterfront businesses in the City and County will likely suffer as customers are blocked and services interrupted for significant portions of the day.  Our current estimate is that this impact is in the 16 percent range, but that does not include allowances for train traffic conflicts, machinery breakdowns, and weather.  

Diminished Waterfront Redevelopment Success:  It is important to note that when jobs are discussed, 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.  The premium nature of those opportunities will be significantly diminished by coal dust, noise, and train-related access issues.    In sum, we suspect that it is economic folly to pursue a project yielding minimal community benefit at the expense of one that will provide larger potential benefit. 

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

Environmental

The environmental issues associated with this project are complicated and broad.  Our environmental concerns include but are not limited to:

Coal Dust: As mentioned above coal dust will be a huge problem.  At Cherry Point it will coat and cover sensitive habitats and compromise water quality.  Likewise, coal dust scattered all along the route will 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.

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 more than 2 miles of existing waterways.  High levels of vessel traffic in the area will also impact nearshore and offshore conditions, particularly bulk carriers that are more prone  to catastrophic failures.  Since this area could provide habitat or needed ecological function for 12 federally protected species and seven state protected species, the exact extent of these modifications is extremely important. 

In addition, we are particularly concerned about the vulnerable Pacific herring populations (a Dashboard Indicator for the Puget Sound Partnership's recovery efforts) that spawn in eel grass beds in the nearshore habitats around Cherry Point.  This formerly robust population, now at five percent of historic levels, was once a key building block of a critical food chain that starts with plankton and ends with orcas and humpback whales.  Any action that impacts eel grass, or otherwise jeopardizes this population further, will have ecological as well as potential economic impact via lost fishery or tourism revenues. 

Mercury:  Mercury pollution is a serious threat to human health, with pregnant women and the unborn being most vulnerable to this peril. 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 will result in more mercury in our water.  In fact, a recent University of Washington study documented that the main source of new mercury in Lake Whatcom and other Washington waterways is from Asia, primarily China.

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 causes much of the wheel squealing we hear during transit.  These same extraordinary forces that impact tracks also act on geology.  Given that much local development is on vulnerable or unstable formations such as the homes along Eldridge Avenue in Bellingham, this is a great concern that needs to be examined.

Social

The social issues include all of the economic impacts mentioned above but also include items such as those listed below:

Increased Cancer Rates:  In addition to the mercury threat identified above, studies on the impact of train-generated diesel exhaust in Stockton, California indicated a clear relationship between the proximity to train traffic and cancer.  This 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.  We also have concerns that air and water pollution associated with large vessel traffic will have human health consequences as well.

Human and Property Safety:  Even at our current traffic levels, train-caused deaths are not uncommon.  The anticipated escalation of traffic would likely increase that number.  In addition, coal dust distributed on rail beds is being credited by the railroad industry with causing train derailments because the dust inhibits proper drainage of rail beds.  A train derailment like the recent one in Tacoma could have disastrous consequences in downtown Bellingham and elsewhere in Whatcom County.

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.  This 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 jeopardizes this balance, our hard-earned reputation, and, ultimately, our happiness.


National and Global Issues

Although much is at stake locally regarding this project, the potential impacts are far-reaching as well and include:

US Job Loss:  The enormous amount of coal being sent as an economic building block (raw material) to a country that is our direct competitor on the global market has direct economic impacts in terms of national job loss.  Fifty-four million metric tons of coal will empower an estimated population of 5 million Chinese which will result in roughly 200,000 more workers making products bound for the US market and displacing a like amount of US manufacturing jobs.  Do we really want to help accelerate this trend or should we be smarter?

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 gases annually.  We can ignore or rationalize this factor because its impacts feel removed from our day-to-day lives, but we do so at our peril.

Although much will be made in this debate about "clean coal" technologies and China's advancements in the realm of pollution reduction and carbon sequestration, the truths in this matter are that there currently is no such thing as "clean coal" and while China is making bold promises, there is a serious performance gap.  Overall, coal burned in the US is still cleaner than coal burned in China. 

Energy Security:  No rational national energy trajectory involves a scenario where the US will be coal-free anytime in the near future.  Therefore, these coal resources from federal public lands we are so cavalierly sending to China are diminishing the energy security of our country.  If the US were getting a fair price for this finite job-creating resource, this might make economic sense, but that is really not the case.  The reason that China is buying our coal instead of using their own resources at present is that we are selling it at bargain basement prices. 

As has been said repeatedly by project proponents, Cherry Point is a big deal.  We absolutely agree with this sentiment.  In fact, we would argue that this project is so pivotal that it will absolutely determine the future character of the region.  The choice in our minds is one between continued pursuit of a bright and promising future and a turn towards a past anchored in extractive behaviors that have left us polluted, degraded, and mired in ecological, economic, and social debt.  We hope that our elected representatives will employ prudence and courage in the face of extreme political pressure.  Please take some time to look at the facts and the full-range of potential impacts before making any decision on this project.  The citizens of the area need to have their interests considered at least to the same degree as the interests of multi-billion dollar international operators. This would seem to be the cornerstone of a democratic process.

We thank you for considering our concerns and comments on this important project. 

Sincerely,

The RE Sources Community
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