Should Washington become the king of shipping coal to China?

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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.

With organized labor officials backing the project as much as they’ve pushed for anything around here in many years, a classic jobs-versus-environment standoff seems to be shaping up. Gov. Chris Gregoire and many other Democratic politicians are taking a wait-and-see attitude as two key groups of Democratic backers square off over the coal port.

This week marks an important milestone the Whatcom County government will make a crucial decision about what the county will consider as it decides whether to approve the project. The big question: Will the county require studies to gauge impacts such as climate change, air pollution, coal dust blowing off trains, businesses and services cut off for what could total two hours every day while the trains pass,  and, yes, motorists’ time waiting for trains? Or will the Whatcom County Planning Department limit its focus to the environmental impacts on and around the 350-acre site where the coal terminal is to be located?

We’re happy to be able to present a package of stories examining this question in depth. They were produced by the students in the Journalism 450 class at Western Washington University. They were primarily edited by WWU Professor Carolyn Nielsen. As InvestigateWest's co-founder and senior environmental correspondent, I advised the students when they were partway through the reporting process, and helped prepare the final stories for publication.

The stories:

Washington eschews coal for power, but lines up to be king of shipping coal to China 

Proposed port splits Dems over labor, enviro concerns

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

Trains' impact on daily life worries neighbors; would trains imperil Bellingham's $2 billion waterfront makeover?

"Clean coal" technology years away -- and uncertain -- but it could reduce Cherry Point bulk and coal terminal's environmental impact

Additional coverage:

Crosscut: Coal port proposal drives a big green wedge into Bellingham politics

Bellingham Herald: Key decision expected from Whatcom County this week on cargo terminal

Bellingham Herald: Whatcom County: Gateway Pacific cargo terminal needs new permit 

Crosscut: Whatcom County deals coal port a serious setback