Bellingham’s Coal Train Blues

There’s quite a drama brewing here in Bellingham, Washington, my adopted hometown of 18 years, out on the edge of Puget Sound.

A little north of town, at Cherry Point, there is some land that has been designated for industrial use for many, many years. It’s already home to two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter, and yet it’s also adjacent to a 3,000 acre offshore aquatic reserve, created in 2000, with a new management plan implemented in November 2010 that garnered praise by both environmentalists and the local industries.

However, now there’s momentum building for the addition of a major shipping terminal at Cherry Point, a project that has stirred up passions from camps both for and against.

It’s shaping up to be an epic battle, a classic Pacific Northwest conflict pitting the very real needs for jobs and economic stimulus against the very real needs for environmental protection and public health. Already, as seems to be de rigueur in America, the public debate is polarized, treehuggers on the left and free market preachers on the right.

The treehuggers (a group that I’m mostly aligned with) are concerned about the impacts on the aquatic reserve, other natural habitats in the area, and particularly worried about the amount of coal dust that escapes into the air as the train rolls through town, since coal cars, such as those pictured here, are not covered.

The free market preachers, on the other hand, argue that they are tired of treehuggers saying no to everything and slowing down economic growth with their nitpicky worries about the trees, plants, and animals that don’t need jobs and don’t appear to contribute to the local economy.

All the more refreshing, then, to read this in today’s The Bellingham Herald:

A community group has been organized to gather information about the potential impact of increased rail traffic through the city if the Gateway Pacific cargo terminal is built at Cherry Point.

The group is called Communitywise Bellingham, and it has a website up and running.

“The big focus from my standpoint is adding light rather than heat to the conversation,” said Patricia Decker, a former city planning director who is heading the effort with her husband, Jack Delay…

But rather than oppose the project, Decker and Delay say they want to gather information and make sure that Bellingham impacts are considered and minimized as part of the study and permit process.

The truth is that the current economic situation in our county and state are a perfect setup for making hasty public policy decisions that could bite us in the ass down the road. Yes, we need more tax revenue and we need family wage jobs, but we also need clean air, clean water, herring, and salmon, and all manner of birds and mammals, etc.

So, good on Communitywise Bellingham for their fair-minded approach. The proposed operator of the shipping terminal, SSA Marine, has to complete a two-year environmental impact study anyway, a process that will provide for public input at various stages. Communitywise Bellingham is simply an effort to organize like-minded individuals who wish to participate in that public input process, to empower them to exercise their right to provide that input, and to ensure that their input is well-informed, fact-based, and persuasive.

4 thoughts on “Bellingham’s Coal Train Blues

  1. I was very impressed by how calm and informative communitywise Bellingham is in addressing this very serious issue. I am so torn. yes it would be nice to have a big economic shot in the arm. But at the same time part of what I love about Bellingham/Whatcom Co is the amazing amount of nature and wildlife I get to enjoy on a daily basis. Without it we lose what makes this place special. I just wish we could have a environmentally friendly boost to our economy and jobs.

    1. Yeah, it’s a tough situation alright, and it seems a shame that coal has been identified as the main product that would go through this facility.

      While I’d bet there would be pushback from the community even without the coal issue, coal is just so symbolic. I mean, when I think of the dirtiest fuel you can think of, from extraction to transportation to consumption, as dirty as oil might be, I think of coal.

      It’s hard to deny how Stone Age coal seems. I think of coal and I think of miners covered in dust and dying of black lung disease. I think of widows and orphans.

  2. Bellingham is one of several West Coasts ports being targeted to export coal to China. Burning that coal will worsen the climate crisis, and create a mess all along the way. Better to leave it in the ground. How many folks from B’ham would be interested in riding bicycles to the coal fields of Wyoming & Montana to communicate this point?

    1. Hi Vernon,

      Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts on the coal terminals. I can’t agree with you more.

      That said, I wish I was able to participate in bicycle trip to the coal fields. It’s a fantastic idea, but I’m not able to at this point in my life.

      I’ll continue to fight the fight here, but if you do organize a ride, PLEASE let me know. I’d love to blog about it!

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