Coal opposition in Bellingham, Washington. Photo courtesy of Portland Rising Tide
Somewhere outside Ferndale, Washington—after following a series of backcountry roads through rolling pastures and fertile farmland dotted with goats and llamas—I reached a sign warning: “No Trespassing, Violators Will Be Prosecuted,” that marks the presumed far outer edge of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.
If approved and built, the massive, $600 million facility will ship at least 59.5 million tons of coal per year to Asia, doubling US exports of the world's dirtiest fossil fuel. To effectively feed the beast, nine trains per day, each one and a half miles long, would travel from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, over the Continental Divide, to this small stretch of coastline just 17 miles south of the Canadian border. Then those same trains would turn around and head back to the mines, to fill up once again—all part of an never-ending loop cutting through small towns, remote wilderness, and even big cities like Tacoma, Spokane, and Seattle, spreading coal dust all along their route. Up to 3 percent of each load escapes from the open-air cars on each westbound leg of the journey.
That's the plan, anyway.
What lies beyond the "No Trespassing" sign at this particular moment, however, really depends on who you ask. Before venturing to Ferndale, I started my inquiries earlier in the week with a visit to the northwest regional office of the Washington State Department of Ecology in Bellevue. The DOE is currently tasked (along with the small County of Whatcom and the US Army Corps of Engineers) with producing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Gateway Pacific proposal. Plans for the terminal were first submitted in 2011 by SSA Marine, which owns the land upon which the export terminal would sit, and the DOE have been racing to produce their study.
“If you go there,” Regional Director Josh Baldi told me, “it will look like a pretty stretch of Puget Sound shoreline.”
Baldi and his colleagues at Washington Ecology further described the site as a large area of forested and unforested wetlands, noting that even without addressing the thorny issues surrounding coal, they'd still be asked to assess the environmental consequences of a 140-plus acre wetland impact, the largest in state history (by a factor of ten) since wetland protection laws were enacted in the 1970s. The shoreline in question, known as Cherry Point, is also a major nursery for a specific type of herring that's a key link in the food chain for juvenile salmon, whose stocks have been in serious decline for decades, possibly due to previous industrial projects in the area.
“This proposal has major potential implications for water quality, hydrology and habitat,” according to Baldi. But it's undoubtedly coal that's made Gateway Pacific a flashpoint in the biggest environmental battle in the Pacific Northwest since the “timber wars” of the 1990s pitted defenders of old growth forests against the logging companies.
During an unusually intensive scoping process designed to determine exactly which impacts will (and will not) be studied as part of the EIS, thousands of citizens voiced their fears that Gateway Pacific, the trains that service it, and the coal they carry will congest rail lines, tying up local traffic along the route, while dangerously overburdening shipping lanes in Puget Sound and releasing roughly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually—more than all other activity in the rest of Washington State combined. Concerned citizens submitted over 125,000 comments as part of the review process, and a series of seven public meetings drew record crowds in the thousands, organized by groups like Power Past Coal and the Washington Environmental Council.
“We've never experienced anything like that,” Baldi acknowledged, noting that the outcry helped convince his department to announce plans to pursue a report that not only assesses impacts at the proposed Gateway site, but also along the entirety of the rail route, plus cargo-ship safety within and beyond Washington waters, affects on human health in the state, and climate change impacts.
“The breadth of this does look different than other EIS's that we have overseen,” Baldi affirmed, “but that's because the facts associated with this are different. It's a unique proposal, and that compelled us to establish a scope that's appropriate to the project.”
No aspect of Baldi's forthcoming report—which should take two years to complete—will be more controversial than projections of the effect of greenhouse gas emissions once all that coal reaches power plants in Asia, an inclusion vehemently opposed by the various industries hoping for swift approval. Originally Washington Ecology reached an agreement with the US Corps of Engineers to work together on a joint county/state/federal EIS that would feature these far reaching impacts, but just days after our discussion, the Corps announced that they will in fact produce their own statement, focused only on local impacts.
A coal train travels along Puget Sound. Photo by Paul K. Anderson
Meanwhile, to hear what the proposal's proponents had to say for themselves, I contacted SSA Marine. I received no reply, though I was able to arrange a phone interview with Lauri Hennessey, spokesperson for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports. A former EPA official under Presidents Clinton and Bush, Hennessey—presumably with a straight face—described the Alliance as “a grassroots effort,” despite being created and funded largely by the coal industry and its allies. She then acknowledged that her “real life job” is serving as Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, with 67 offices and more than 4,800 employees worldwide.
Edelman's best known for their decades of work for Big Tobacco, including designing and implementing coordinated campaigns to downplay the dangers of smoking and discredit those who sought to more vigorously regulate their clients' deadly and addictive cigarettes. Only difference is that now Edelman's moved from promoting cancer sticks to defending smokestacks.
“Countries that are looking for more sources of energy, like for example China, do use coal and they will be using coal for the next several years,” Hennessey informed me. “In the future they will use other sources, but at least for the next several years they'll be using coal. And so the question is: Where is that coal going to come from? And this particular coal that we're talking about exporting has lower sulphur and lower ash so it's a better quality than what those countries would otherwise import.”
Hennessey called herself an environmentalist, though not without a nervous titter. She then disputed the idea that doubling US coal exports will drive global warming, before repeatedly asserting that “at the end of the day, the key argument is always going to be about creating jobs.”
Industry estimates predict that Gateway Pacific's two-year construction period will create up to 4,400 new temporary jobs and $92 million in state and local tax revenues, with up to 430 permanent direct jobs left once the facility is operational. More independent analysis has shown less clear benefits, but really, any way you slice it, that's just not a lot of employment compared to the massive financial investment involved in mining, moving, shipping, and selling all that product. Backers of the project are quick to tout local union support, but something tells me that if the $600 million in construction costs for the Gateway facility alone were instead to be equally divided among the 430 people who stand to land a new permanent job, such support would quickly evaporate.
So could it be that the coal companies are actually primarily interested in their own profits, a subject conspicuously absent from the Alliance's ubiquitous cheerleading for the project? I asked Hennessey a few pointed questions regarding how her corporate masters balance their apparently altruistic drive to create a better life for workers with their insatiable desire to make money, and got a series of nonanswers in reply.
Then, suddenly, our time ran out. But before I let Ms. Hennessey get back to her real-life job, I asked what I'd see at the proposed Gateway Pacific site, if I visited in person.
“Cherry Point is basically in an industrial area,” she replied, citing a nearby oil refinery and aluminum smelter. “So [the coal terminal] is a perfect use for that kind of area.”
Not surprisingly, Jewell James of the Lummi Nation, a Native American tribe from the Puget Sound area, strongly disagrees.
He’s a master carpenter who creates special totem poles to provide spiritual healing at disaster sites, including three poles installed near the locations where America suffered attacks on 9/11. Now he's making a 1,200 mile journey with his latest offering, following the proposed route of the coal trains from the Powder River Basin mines in Montana all the way to Cherry Point, with stops along the way to educate the public, and drum up support for the Lummis' efforts to stop Gateway Pacific.
Reached by telephone following the “We Draw the Line!” tour's first stop at the Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Southeastern Montana, Jewell described Cherry Point as a 3,500-year-old site that's covered in the graves of his ancestors, while remaining alive and vital in the Lummi Nation's oral history. A place he and his contemporaries have worked for 30 years to rebuild the herring population and salmon fisheries—and a majestic cliff overlooking the San Juan Islands.
“At sunset,” he told me, “it's just beautiful.”
According to a letter sent to the US Army Corps of Engineers by Lummi Indian Business Council Chair Tim Ballew that expressed “unconditional and unequivocal opposition to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal," Cherry Point is also a place the tribe's fishers have sought sustenance for 175 generations. Rights guaranteed to this day by the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, which also pushed the Lummi onto the reservation they still occupy.