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Cherry Point coal-export port hits two setbacks on environmental front

The controversial proposal for a major coal-export port to be built at Cherry Point near Bellingham hit two big setbacks this week: environmentalists broke off talks with the developer, SSA Marine, which was also caught building a road through forested wetlands without proper permits.

With this news still fresh, we're taking the opportunity to publish the second installment of the package we posted earlier this summer by Western Washington University journalism students who  took an in-depth look at the proposal. 

Briefly, here are this week's developments:

 

 

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Environmental effects of proposed Cherry Point coal plan debated

By Raymond Flores and Andrew Donaldson

Western Washington University

The tiny nub of forested land poking into the sheltered Strait of Georgia represents a diverse aquatic environment surrounding potentially hazardous, but economically healthy, industry. Rural Cherry Point, west of Ferndale, is the new epicenter in a raging debate over global commerce.

The state aquatic reserve at Cherry Point, established in 2000, engulfs three industrial wharfs and could be home to a fourth if the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal is built. A new dock, trestle, commodity storage area and conveyor belts would mean development on 350 acres of the 1,200-acre project site.

The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Management Plan was adopted in 2010 by the Department of Natural Resources to protect and restore marine habitat, aquatic vegetation and water quality around what was the state’s largest herring stock – one that is now struggling, worrying conservationists. Aquatic reserve lands are set aside for their environmental, educational or scientific interest, according to the management plan.

The management plan was put into effect for the protection of valuable aquatic lands, but recognizes historical use of aquatic zones for industry and commerce. The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve makes up 227 of the 2.6 million acres included in the Washington State Aquatic Reserve Program.

Cherry Point, an unicorporated area zoned for high-impact industrial use, has been the home of the BP and ConocoPhillips oil refineries, as well as the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter, for decades.

“Clean coal” technology years away, but it could reduce Cherry Point bulk terminal’s impact

By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne Graff
Western Washington University

Washington state is eliminating coal-fired power in an effort to reduce harmful emissions. China is attempting to reduce emissions using new technology for burning coal.

“Individual coal plants have different efficiencies and pollution rates. A plant in China may be more or less efficient than one in Washington based on the technology at the plant,” said Justin Brant, climate change policy analyst for the Washington Department of Ecology. “That said, climate change is a global issue and greenhouse gases produced in China have the same effect as those produced in Washington or anywhere else.”

Clean coal technology includes a variety of ways to reduce emissions. The five major emissions associated with coal burning are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, mercury and carbon dioxide, said Brad Tomer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Major Demonstrations.

Technologies exist or are currently under development to control these five types of emissions. Of particular controversy is the existence of carbon capture and storage: a process the Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimates could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent.

“It’s not futuristic in the sense of pie in the sky,” Tomer said.  

Carbon capture and storage has its skeptics. Craig Benjamin of the Environmental Priorities Coalition said, “That doesn’t exist. It’s kind of like a unicorn: people like to talk about it — they’ve been talking about it for 30 years — but there’s no example of it.”

Trains' impact on daily life worries neighbors; would they imperil B'ham's $2 B waterfront remake?

By Gina Cole and Brianna Gibbs

Western Washington University 

BELLINGHAM – From its early days as a thriving logging and fishing port, through the decades of housing Georgia-Pacific West, Inc.’s paper mill, Bellingham has always had a working waterfront. Most of those industries are now gone, but even as the city prepares to transform 220 waterfront acres, it has repeatedly emphasized the need to maintain a working waterfront and increase public access to the water.

The plan is still preliminary, but the city has already invested $2 billion in waterfront cleanup to eventually renovate the area with commercial spaces, university classrooms, offices, shops, eateries, a park and even a new public library or aquarium.

However, a bulk-shipping terminal proposed at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, could bring train traffic that many are concerned would interfere with the city’s vision for waterfront development.

Seattle-based SSA Marine, a company specializing in marine terminal operations, is proposing to build a shipping terminal north of Bellingham that could hold as much as 54 million tons of bulk commodities including coal, wheat, potash (a mineral used in fertilizers), and calcined coke (a byproduct of oil refining), said SSA Marine consultant Craig Cole. SSA Marine has already signed a contract with coal giant Peabody Energy to ship 24 million metric tons of coal, equivalent to filling 370 football fields almost 15 feet deep. The terminal would have the capacity to ship double that.

If the terminal were built and operating at full capacity, the coal and other bulk commodities would be brought to the terminal via an estimated 18 additional trains that would pass through Bellingham and Whatcom County, Cole said.

Will proposed bulk, coal terminal face narrow or broad environmental review?

By Carolyn Nielsen and Andrew Donaldson

Western Washington University

BELLINGHAM – The proposed coal and bulk shipping terminal at Cherry Point faces a key decision –– expected Friday, June 24 –– as the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department decides whether to require the terminal’s proponents to obtain a new permit to build a pier northwest of Bellingham.

Pacific International Terminals,  a joint venture of Seattle-based SSA Marine and Vancouver, B.C.-based Westshore Terminals, Ltd., submitted its application June 10 for a 350-acre shipping terminal on land and a pier that extends into a newly designated  aquatic reserve.

The company asserts that it already has permission to build the pier because the county issued a permit for one in 1997.

Local and regional environmental advocacy groups are urging the Whatcom County Planning and Development Department to reject the application because the permit was approved under outdated environmental regulations.

A June 17 letter to the county planning department from the non-profit law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Climate Solutions, the Sierra Club and Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities accused proponents of trying to subvert updated environmental standards in constructing the first phase of the project, the pier.

Email petitions from RE Sources and Communitywise Bellingham circulated widely on Thursday, calling on Whatcom County residents to contact the planning department and speak out against accepting the application.

Robert McClure's picture

Should Washington become the king of shipping coal to China?

Have you ever had to wait for a train at, say, Broad Street in Seattle, right by the SAM Sculpture Park? Or anyplace else along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that hug the coast of Puget Sound?

Imagine roughly doubling the train traffic on that railroad. Imagine further that each of these new trains is a mile and a half long. That’s a lot of waiting at railroad crossings.

But critics of the Gateway Pacific Terminal – the proposed coal-exporting port near Bellingham that would service those very long trains full of coal  – say that’s only the first of many impacts on communities and the environment because of the terminal’s overall purpose: sending up to 48 million tons of coal to China every year.

Topping the list of environmental impacts is climate change. The Chinese would burn a *lot* of coal, the most climate-unfriendly of the major energy sources. Plus there are the greenhouse gases emitted bringing the coal here from the Power River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.  And – oh, yeah –air pollution created in China can find its way to our shores in just a week and a half.

On the other hand, you may have noticed that financially, many of our neighbors are hurting. The proposed coal-exporting terminal west of Ferndale would mean hundreds of jobs – those “family-wage” jobs that are increasingly hard to find in Western Washington.  The naturally deep port at Cherry Point would not need to be dredged, proponents of the terminal point out. And the Powder River coal is low-sulfur, meaning it creates less lung-attacking pollution when burned than the higher-sulfur coal the Chinese might obtain from elsewhere.

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