by Rod Lotter
– Capitol Hill Times Magazine –
The history of Seattle can be traced alongside the history of the railroad. Wherever a track was laid, people showed up; and when a station popped up, so did a town.
The railroad brought workers, who built houses, businesses and roads, essentially building our lovely city. The railroads were the veins that connected the sparsely-populated arteries of the Pacific Northwest to the heart of America: New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
The first tracks were laid in the Seattle area around 1864 with the construction of the Northern Pacific rail line, which was purchased in the 1970s by Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) who owns the rail line to this day. In Seattle, the rail stretches along the coastline and travels through the SoDo neighborhood, the downtown waterfront, Interbay and Ballard on its way to Canada.
On certain quiet nights on Capitol Hill, you can hear the train whistle float over the city as it carries its cargo across the state.
As well as being one of the oldest transportation technologies still in use today, the train is also one of the cheapest- and therefore still one of the most popular.
Most of the goods transported on the trains are harmless enough: clothes, grains, wood, among thousands of over things. But, when it comes to coal, the gloves come off.
A couple of years ago, a plan was proposed by SSA Marine, the nation’s largest marine terminal builder, in which coal from mines in Montana would be transported to ports in Washington State and Oregon, and then shipped to Asia. The plan moved forward, and the first planned location was chosen: Cherry Point, which is located about 90 miles north of Seattle outside of a small burg known as Ferndale.
The plan has come under a lot of scrutiny and controversy due to Washington’s desire to become more energy-efficient and clean. There are also public health concerns, because the coal would be transported in open carts, in which the dust could get swept in the air. Studies have shown that coal dust is carcinogenic.
During an April town hall meeting at Seattle Central Community College, a concerned student asked Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn what he thought about the coal port plan. The mayor said he was against it, and would do everything possible to stop it.
“The proposed coal terminal would go against everything we believe here in Seattle,” the mayor said. “It would negate everything we have worked for, in terms of being green and sustainable, because coal is not sustainable.”
McGinn has stated his opposition to the coal port many times, but it does not seem as if there is anything the Seattle government can do about it. The mayor is not alone, as many in Seattle, and across the state have come out in opposition to the port, including some railroad workers and various labor unions located in SoDo.
In May, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution in opposition to the coal terminal plan. The primary concern was not just the coal port in Cherry Point, which is known as the Gateway Pacific Terminal, but the possibility that there could be up to six terminals built across Washington and Oregon, which would potentially ship more than 150 million tons of coal to hungry Asian markets – more coal than was exported by America in all of 2011, according to a study conducted by the Western Organization of Resources Councils.
The Gateway Pacific Terminal will be the first completed terminal and is projected to ship up to 48 million tons of coal per year, according to a survey cited by Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien.
“All the work Seattle has done – from banning plastic bags and certain light bulbs, and encouraging people to take buses and live green – could be dwarfed by these coal terminals,” O’Brien said. “It is our duty, as the largest city in the state, to raise awareness and play a role in making our state, if not the world, greener.”
O’Brien said the environmental impact that the coal ports will have are not piecemeal, and he said he believes Seattle can make a difference in defeating the proposal.
“It is a tough world out there for everyone, especially when it comes to the economy,” O’Brien said. “And I get the fact that people need work, and these coal ports could bring more jobs to certain areas, but there needs to be some kind of balance between environmental sustainability and responsibility, and economic sustainability and responsibility. We need to create long-term jobs that make the world healthier.”
Another concern is the increased train traffic that would come through the city. According to BNSF Railroad, there are currently about 70 trains per day that go through Seattle, north and southbound. O’Brien has stated that the addition of the coal traffic could put up to 18 more trains on Seattle tracks daily.
So far, Seattle has been the largest city to voice its concerns over the coal terminals, but many smaller towns have also followed suit, including Camas, Bainbridge Island, Marysville, Edmonds, Stevenson, Washougal and Bellingham, which is a town of about 65,000 and is located about 10 miles from the Gateway Pacific Terminal.
There is at least one hold out: Ferndale, Washington. The Mayor of Ferndale, Gary Jensen, is one of the very few vocal supporters of the coal terminal, along with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and other unions and labor groups. Washington Governor Christine Gregoire has remained neutral on the issue.
Jensen said that he supports the terminal because of the good paying jobs that would come to Ferndale, which has struggled through the recession. According to the terminal’s website, the Gateway Pacific Terminal would create 1,250 permanent jobs and generate more than $140 million in economic activity per year. This would include about $11 million in taxes per year, which would go directly to the community.
“I support growth, and I support green initiatives,” Jensen said. “The bottom line is that everyone has a right to build whatever project they want, to a certain extent, and we have the technology now to build the best coal terminal in the world.”
Jensen said the hope is that once the Gateway Pacific Terminal is built, it could also be used to ship more than just coal, like grain and other commodities, to Asia.
The grainery in Ferndale is one of the largest and oldest employers in the city of 11,564 people. No matter where you are in the small town, you can smell the grains and hear the trains that roll through from miles away.
“In the end, we have coal to sell, and we have a market for it in Asia,” Jensen said. “One way or another, someone is going to find a way to get that coal to China and make a profit off of it, so it may as well be Washington State, right?”
The idea of making a profit for the state from the coal terminals has been brought up by other government officials, such as Congressman Jim McDermott (D). In late July, McDermott proposed an excise tax that would force the coal mining companies to pay $10 for every ton of coal that is shipped. Currently, coal companies pay about $1 per ton of coal, according to the Seattle Times.
McDermott’s office has stated that the tax could possibly generate more than $117 billion over the next decade, which would be divvied up between the states. But the tax is not expected to pass, as any new tax tends to hit a stalemate in the current political climate.
“China and other Asian markets are years and years away from being independent from coal energy, and that is just a fact,” Jensen said. “I will admit that coal is not a great product, but we are a long way from eliminating the use of it around the world, and there is not much that anyone can do about that.”
The struggle between economics and environmentalism, which is also a struggle between dollars and values, will likely continue until the terminal is built. Currently, the Cherry Point terminal is undergoing an Environmental Impact Study, which will last until 2014. Once the study is complete, construction will begin and will last an estimated two years, according to the Gateway Pacific Terminal website.