Bellingham’s Coal Train Blues Redux

…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.

Nice, then, that Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike has reversed his position, pledging to oppose it as well:

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.

Via The Bellingham Herald:

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.

7 thoughts on “Bellingham’s Coal Train Blues Redux

  1. A very important local issue that needs to be fully exposed before we are run over by the oncoming train.
    Thanks for the link to CommunityWise Bellingham, a very usful site to help organize and make informed decisions about this new G-P.

  2. it is an almost overwhelming battle of David and Goliath like proportions but I think I recall David winning and I hope this has the same outcome. I truly feel Mayor Pike is speaking for the people (majority of Bellingham) with his stance and I fully support him.

    1. One of the unfortunate things is that even if there was no coal involved, if we were only talking about grain for instance, the project would still be highly undesirable solely because of how the increase in train traffic downtown will impact auto/ped/bicycle traffic, not to mention the noise and diesel fumes.

      I recognize the obvious, that Bellingham and Whatcom County are in dire need of new businesses and the jobs and tax revenue they bring, but as Mayor Pike said, at what cost?

      Rightwingers are well rehearsed at dismissing environmental concerns as alarmist fear mongering, so it seems to me that the best way to approach opposing this is to stress how it will be bad for local business, how it totally impedes waterfront development, and how it’s bad for property values. Environmental impacts have to be mentioned as well, but as only one part of an overall bigger picture.

      1. I understand the need for jobs but as a member of the small business owner community in Bellingham I can not even begin to imagine the “cost” for small business. There is not one large employer in Bellingham, it is made up of small business. The development of the water front would bring long term tourism dollars into our community. The water front is a treasure that should be carefully developed and the trains would just end hopes for any future towards this project. Again I do support job growth but one must look long term and the port is not going to help Bellingham long term. There is a limit to how many jobs the port can create, the waterfront development has so many more possibilities.

  3. I cant belive the fools here. the average wage for bellingham is under the rest of the state by about 10k a year. This would bring much needed high paying jobs to the county, not bellingham the county. how does bellingham feel about the coal trains already going through the town? no mention there eh? as it sit the trains go to B.C. and drop it off up there. The new plane would have it droped off about 20 miles north of bellingham. I hat that these people are riuning our county it was built on coal fish and timber. not mochas, lattes, or other queer sounding drinks that the jobs pay mim wage!

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