…or: Thank you, Mayor Dan!
Last month I wrote about the Gateway Pacific Terminal project, proposed for the Cherry Point area just north of Bellingham, a project that would bring up to 18 trains of coal per day (a conservative estimate compared to other figures quoted in the media) through Fairhaven, passing along the waterfront adjacent to the Taylor Dock pedestrian/bicycle causeway and Boulevard Park, and finally through downtown, right along the boundary between the city and the 220-acre waterfront redevelopment area, the former site of a Georgia Pacific paper mill.
(Note: Hmmmmmmm. Georgia Pacific and Gateway Pacific? Two G-Ps?! My friend Tom, in an email yesterday morning, wrote, “We just got rid of the environmental blight of G-P on the waterfront and now we’ll replace it with another G-P that is worse?”)
Since I first wrote about the new G-P, I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject and have talked to a lot of people both for and against, and my conclusion is that this project is incredibly wrong for Bellingham in myriad ways, some of which I’ll cover below.
From a public statement posted to the City of Bellingham website:
My team and I met recently with representatives of SSA Marine and their main business partners, the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad. I hoped they would bring to the conversation recognition that their proposed project would have multiple downsides for our community. I hoped they would make a commitment to provide meaningful mitigations — or even better– a willingness consider other commodities, and not rely exclusively on coal exports for the terminal’s financial engine.
Instead, these proponents brought denial of any potential harms and blatant defiance that they should change their plans in any way. In fact, it has become public knowledge that they have signed a multi-year deal with Montana’s Peabody Coal to ship at least 24 million tons of coal from our sensitive shores as their major focus of business for the foreseeable future.
That is not a future that I want to see. By any calculation, the proposed coal-dependent terminal at Cherry Point does not add up.
It cannot be overstated just how courageous this move by Mayor Dan is. He’s running for re-election, and he just picked a fight with a very powerful, well-funded group who will do everything in their power to paint him as blocking the creation of new jobs at a time when unemployment is hurting the city and the county.
And yet, one thing gets overlooked in most of the discussion I’ve listened to and read on the subject. Namely, it is very possible that in an effort to create several hundred long-term jobs, with no guarantees that I’ve seen concerning just how many of them will be filled by locals, the increase in train traffic could torpedo the waterfront redevelopment that’s been in the works for years, a project that would bring many hundreds more long-term jobs, by way of light industrial and retail businesses, as well as an expansion of Western Washington University’s campus to that property.
The future success of the waterfront redevelopment depends heavily on investors having confidence that the quality of life that Bellingham has been nationally recognized for — a quality marked by abundant access to nature and the community’s commitment to sustainability — will remain intact, resulting in continued well-managed growth, the kind of growth that will support commercial and residential ventures.
Already, I’ve heard rumblings from friends in the real estate business that concerns about the environmental and noise impacts of increased rail traffic through town have started to bring down property values in areas near the train tracks. And on a more practical level, imagine how uninviting the waterfront will be with either coal or passenger trains blocking traffic almost every hour.
Fortunately, the Bellingham City Council shares this concern.
The Bellingham City Council recently sent a letter to Whatcom County planners and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to urge that rail traffic impacts on Bellingham be evaluated, as well as the impacts from noise, coal dust and diesel emissions. They also want the project study to estimate potential losses to property values along the rail line and on the waterfront.
“If unmitigated, the great increase in train traffic has the potential to undermine waterfront growth and investment by creating significant problems with noise, traffic blockage, air pollution and safety concerns, thereby putting at risk millions of public dollars and thousands of potential jobs,” the letter states.
So, let’s hear it for the City Council, and for Mayor Dan, who included in his public statement:
In the end, it is my job as Mayor to protect Bellingham and protect it I will.