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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Questions surround coal terminal’s impact on Spokane and elsewhere

Rail cars on elevated tracks make their way through downtown Spokane on Tuesday. More freight trains filled with coal could soon be passing through town if the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County is built. (Colin Mulvany)
Rail cars on elevated tracks make their way through downtown Spokane on Tuesday. More freight trains filled with coal could soon be passing through town if the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County is built. (Colin Mulvany)

Coal, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. But these days in Washington, coal is political.

A plan to build a $665 million port terminal near Bellingham to ship coal to China and other Asian customers has labor unions aligned with business groups, pushing hard for a new facility and new jobs. Environmental organizations and some social action groups, who worked with labor and against some business groups in this month’s election, are firmly against the project.

Almost everyone agrees a plan to build a new coal terminal at Cherry Point deserves some study before it is built.

They disagree on what should be studied: Just the proposed terminal in one of the Pacific Coast’s last deep-water ports, with a capacity to ship 54 million tons of coal each year? The terminal and the routes the trains will take from the coal mines in Montana and Wyoming to the Puget Sound port? The combined impact of all coal ports that could be built in the Northwest to meet what’s potentially a huge demand for coal by the Chinese? Or all the impacts, from the mines in the Rockies to the smokestacks in Asia?

Questions like these are likely to be posed, with great passion on both sides, at a Dec. 4 hearing by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Spokane County fairgrounds.

Seeking information

Although Spokane is more than 300 miles from Bellingham, it is on the route most trains will take to deliver the coal from the mines to the port.

Landing a hearing for the coal terminal’s environmental impact statement can be seen as a victory for the Spokane City Council, which in June asked state and federal officials to study the effects of extra coal trains, some of them pulling as many as 125 cars, moving through the city daily.

“We’re the pass-through,” said City Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who will handle introductions at a workshop for opponents to prepare for the corps hearing. That workshop will be 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Community Building, 35 W. Main Ave.

Waldref has a history as an environmental activist on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. But she says she’s wearing her council member hat on the Cherry Point project. “I’m not going to be, at this point, anti-coal. I’m not an alarmist. I just want information,” she said.

Earlier this month, a group of Democratic legislators asked Gov. Chris Gregoire for an all-agency review of the economic, health, traffic and freight capacity effects of extra train traffic through the state if projects at Cherry Point and several others on the drawing board for the Northwest are built.

“How much rail capacity do we actually have?” said Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon. There are also concerns about added pollution from carbon dioxide and mercury from burning coal in China.

Gregoire’s office has yet to respond to this request for an “interagency task force” on coal trains. But labor leaders around the state are urging a much narrower study, centered on the new port facility near Bellingham and the economic impact on that community. Many unions have joined with the Association of Washington Business, the shipping industry, chambers of commerce and other business groups to form the pro-terminal Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports. The alliance is mustering support for building the terminal as the Corps of Engineers gathers testimony for its impact statement.

For them, it’s a winner, both for the construction jobs to build a new deep-water port and the permanent jobs to staff it.

“Our position is, we’re in favor of jobs,” said Beth Thew of the Spokane Labor Council. The demand for coal in China is high, and it has to be shipped from somewhere along the Pacific Coast. “If this is going to happen, I’d like the jobs to be Washington jobs,” she said.

Mike Elliott, of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point is “a very responsible project.” The terminal will be built with state-of-the-art pollution controls, and railroads will take steps to manage the traffic and the loads, he said.

‘Attacking a commodity’

Elliott and other union officials believe the real concern of opponents is the cargo the trains will be carrying, not the terminal. “They’re not attacking a project, they’re attacking a commodity,” he said. “What’s next? Shale oil? Lumber?”

A Corps of Engineers hearing isn’t the place to raise questions about the effects on global climate change of burning coal in China, he added: “That’s for a bigger forum. Take that to the United Nations.”

Transported coal is not a hazardous material and does not pose a serious health risk, Elliott contends. Coal trains already come through Spokane and other Washington rail cities on their way to a terminal in British Columbia, he said. The mining companies spray each load with a surfactant, a liquid that reduces coal dust coming off the open loads.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart has questions about how effective the surfactant is, because studies show the open cars lose some coal on the way to the terminals. Although rail officials say that loss tends to be at the very beginning of the trip, Stuckart says he can’t get an answer to what he considers a simple question: Why not just cover the loads?

He wants information on the possible health effects of more coal dust and increased diesel emissions from the extra trains for people living or working near rail lines, and the potential traffic backups if more trains will be rumbling through at-grade crossings. While he has some personal reservations about the effects of burning coal on global climate change, he wants the impact statement to address topics closer to home.

“I don’t think that it’s a bad thing to understand what the impacts are,” Stuckart said. “Maybe it will come back and say ‘There’s no impact.’ ”

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