Proposed Coal Port Stirs Up Bellingham, WA

By scott parkin
Puget Sound
Puget Sound photo by Flickr user alins74.

Lots of attention is being focused on coal exports in the Northwest these days.

In Cherry Point, WA, near Bellingham, the biggest coal company in the world, St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, has signed an agreement with the biggest port logistics company in the world, Seattle-based SSA Marine, to build another coal export terminal, the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The terminal could ship up to 54 million tons of coal to Asian markets.

South of there in Longview, WA, Ambre Energy and Arch Coal’s efforts to build a coal terminal have gotten a lot of attention, which has resulted in Ambre pulling the permit requests. Ambre stated that it plans to reapply once an environmental impact study is done and has moved to secure a transfer station of sorts upriver in Boardman, OR to limit rail traffic in Lonview, but for now the project is stalled out.

In Bellingham, environmentalists and community members are working to cause the coal exporters the same sort of headaches. Groups are organizing to stop Peabody and SSA Marine’s efforts to turn Whatcom County into the West Coast hub for Big Coal with pressure on local and state government.

Since April, local environmentalists have been showing up to public debates and community meetings to speak out against the coal terminals:

  • In late April, over 350 people showed up to a public debate between pro-coal and anti-coal advocates. The pro-coal camp argues that the terminals will bring up to 213 to 280 permanent longshore jobs. The anti-coalistas argue that the increase in rail traffic will be detrimental for the local communities and towns, and that coal in general causes adverse effects on public health and the global climate.
  • During an event in early May, over 250 people packed a local high school to discuss the coal terminals with Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike. During the exchange, Pike said he wouldn’t take a position on national policy. This statement resulted in one heckler in the audience shouting, “You’re a wimp!”
  • And then last night, Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike had a community forum which turned out 300 community members, the majority of them opposed to the terminal, to talk about the terminal.

SSA Marine and Peabody using the jobs argument has labor and state and local politicians on their side, but thus far these coal terminal initiatives have also allowed environmentalists and community leaders to demonize Big Coal in the public and media arenas.