Environmental groups discuss Cherry Point terminal impacts

Published on Wed, May 11, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Bellingham mayor Dan Pike responds to audience questions at the Gateway Pacific Terminal forum at Bellingham High School on May 4. Photo by Jeremy Schwartz


Roughly 150 people showed up at Bellingham High School last week to hear presentations on the possible negative effects of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal and learn how the public can influence the project’s permitting process.

The Seattle branch of the Sierra Club along with Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities hosted the May 4 forum, entitled “The Coal Hard Truth.” The forum featured speakers from RE Sources, the Sierra Club and Bellingham mayor Dan Pike, who expressed his desire to make sure the transportation impacts of the project are addressed.

Four of the six speakers spoke against the project with each stressing how public opinion can affect the permitting process.
Each opponent stressed the public’s role in influencing what environmental effects are studied in the eventual environmental impact statement (EIS), which is necessary for the project to move forward.

“This project is being sold to you by people who have a whole lot of money and a whole lot of interest in getting this done,” said Matt Krogh, the North Sound Baykeeper for RE Sources. “You have a choice.”

If permitting for the project goes as planned, construction of the terminal would start in 2013 and take about two years.
The $500 million terminal, built to receive 250,000-ton bulk container ships, would sit on the shoreline between the Alcoa Intalco aluminum smelter and the BP refinery.

The facility would be a loading and unloading terminal for train cars carrying coal, grain and potash, a mined and manufactured salt containing potassium.

Officials with Whatcom County, one of the permitting bodies involved, will hold public hearings on the scope of the EIS starting in late summer. The hearings will give the public the opportunity to say what they want studied. The entire permitting process, including the EIS, is expected to take two years.

Representatives from SSA Marine, the Seattle-based company seeking to build the terminal, were not invited to the forum because of limitations on time and the size of the venue. Forum organizers said they will invite proponents of the terminal to speak at subsequent forums.

While SSA Marine has repeatedly said the terminal will handle other materials besides coal, the majority of the possible negative effects discussed at the forum focused specifically on coal.Concerns ranged from the possible harmful effects of coal dust leaving the facility and being deposited in the surrounding community to the increase in mile-long coal trains the terminal will most likely attract.

Krogh said the influx of train traffic, 20 per day by his estimates, through Bellingham could not only deposit coal dust on areas near the train tracks but also cut off access to Bellingham’s waterfront. He said existing cargo trains similar in size to coal trains take at least eight minutes to pass railroad crossings.

In addition to more train traffic, other concerns raised at the forum included the increase at Cherry Point in Capesize vessel traffic, so-called because Capesize ships are too large to sail through the Panama or Suez canals and must sail around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. The proposed terminal will be built to fit two roughly 900-foot-long Capesize ships at the same time.

Seattle-based marine mammal biologist Fred Felleman’s presentation focused on how an increase in these Capesize ships could affect the local marine environment at Cherry Point. He said more vessel traffic could harm the local environment in addition to congest other commercial traffic, such as fishing boats.

Felleman explained the Capesize transport ships have the potential to introduce invasive species from other parts of the world to the Cherry Point area through transfer of water.

Capesize vessels, like most large, ocean-going ships, must take on ballast water to make sure they travel low in the water, which minimizes the risk of capsizing. Requirements to transfer ballast water before ships get to their ports of call exist, but can sometimes be bypassed because of rough conditions on the open ocean, Felleman added.