What is the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point (Xwe’chi’eXen)?

January 9, 2016

(This post is an archive of information about the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, the would-be largest coal export terminal in North America, which was defeated in 2016 to uphold Lummi Nation’s treaty rights)

Coal companies, recognizing that there is little future growth to be had domestically, have a new plan: Export the strip-mined coal that we’re not using to feed Asia’s rapidly growing appetite for energy. And what is the cheapest way to get it there? New coal terminals somewhere on the West Coast. Farthest along is the 48 million metric ton Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal by SSA Marine (49% owned by Goldman Sachs, and partnering with Peabody Energy), planned to be built at Cherry Point just north of Bellingham, WA.

The impacts of this proposed coal terminal would drastically impact the health and welfare of people and the environment in Whatcom County (where the coal terminal would be located). It would also impact communities all along the rail route, from the strip mines in Montana and Wyoming to the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, the planned dock location.

Since its creation in 1999, RE Sources North Sound Baykeeper has been protecting the critical ecosystem of the Cherry Point Reach. This is the next step in that battle.

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) received more than 125,000 scoping comments from the public in 2013. Click here to read the scoping report.

The Facts

SSA Marine has stated their intent to ship 54 million metric tons of material through the Cherry Point facility. A number of bulk commodities have been mentioned, although the day after filing their application with the state, SSA Marine announced a deal with Peabody Coal and Cloud Peak Energy to ship 48 million metric tons of coal annually, for the life of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The two companies have enough coal to fill the full capacity at Cherry Point’s proposed 80-acre coal dump.

Moving up to 54 million metric tons of coal annually in uncovered rail cars is a tremendous undertaking requiring at least nine additional full, nine empty, mile-and-a-half long trains daily traversing to and from Cherry Point through downtown Bellingham.
According to BNSF’s website, these 15,000-ton trains will lose three percent of their load in transit, or 1,780,000 short tons of coal dust spread annually from the Powder River Basin to the terminal. So, in addition to increased noise, diesel exhaust, and traffic delays, the City and County will also have to deal with a significant increase in coal dust accumulating in our neighborhoods and waterways.


Economic Impacts

Communitywise Bellingham economic impact forum videos:

  • Economic Risks of GPT (Vimeo)
  • Tax Implications of GPT (Vimeo)
  • Coal Export Impacts on Rail Infrastructure and Property Values (Vimeo)
  • Overview of City of Bellingham’s Actions to Date (Vimeo)
  • South Fork Rail Route Impacts to Agriculture (Vimeo)

We feel the negative economic consequences of this project are likely massive and include the following:

Property Value Loss: The City of Bellingham alone has roughly $15 billion in real value that will be potentially devalued by noise (wheel squeaking and horn blasts), coal dust, and traffic.

Property value drops as small as one percent can have tremendous consequences in terms of individual worth. These potential impacts need to be addressed in the public discourse.

Business Isolation: Waterfront businesses in the City and County will likely suffer as customers are blocked and services interrupted for significant portions of the day. Our current estimate is that SSA Marine’s impact will be in the 16 percent range, but that does not include allowances for train traffic conflicts, machinery breakdowns, and weather.

Diminished Waterfront Redevelopment Success: It is important to note that when jobs are discussed, the Waterfront Redevelopment Project represents significantly greater job prospects over a longer period of time than the Cherry Point project. Much of the success of the proposed $2 billion waterfront redevelopment project depends on attracting investors and users willing to pay premium prices for condominiums, office space, and marina slips. The premium nature of those opportunities will be significantly diminished by coal dust, noise, and train-related access issues.

In sum, we suspect that it is economic folly to pursue a project yielding minimal community benefit at the expense of one that will provide larger potential benefit.

Public Expenditures: Although SSA Marine promotes the fact that they will be paying $10 million annually in taxes, we think that amount is inadequate considering the anticipated public investment required. For instance, federal law prohibits railroads from paying more than ten percent of cost for safety improvements such as at-grade crossings. Since these increased train traffic levels obviously require significant safety improvements, this will seriously impact public coffers.


Environmental Impacts

Aquatic impacts fact sheet (PDF)

Department of Fish and Wildlife comments on GPT (PDF): During the first public comment period of the environmental review process for the GPT, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife raised a number of environmental concerns with this proposed project, including the massive increase in vessel traffic and terminal site emissions. Click the link above to read this comment. During the environmental review for the Tongue River Railroad, a proposed project that will serve the mines in Montana and Wyoming supplying coal to GPT, the Department of Ecology expressed serious environmental concerns with coal export and asking for a cumulative assessment of all of the proposals.

Department of Ecology comments on Tongue River Railroad (PDF): The environmental issues associated with this project are complicated and broad. Our environmental concerns include but are not limited to:

Coal Dust: As mentioned above, coal dust will be a huge problem. At Cherry Point, it will coat and cover sensitive habitats and compromise water quality. Likewise, coal dust scattered all along the route will foul water and generally lower the quality of life for all.

Proponents of the project will argue that state-of-art best management practices will be employed in every aspect of the handling of the coal, but we have heard that before in places like Seward, Alaska, where the railroad and coal company are currently being sued for Clean Water Act violations, or Robert’s Bank in British Columbia, where oxygen depletion is being observed in nearshore habitats and coal dust is an issue at a marina five miles from the facility. In these cases, as in others, performance speaks much louder than promises.

Physical Disruption: This project proposes to change the physical characteristics of the site in a significant manner, including impacting 162 acres of wetlands and altering more than 2 miles of existing waterways. High levels of vessel traffic in the area will also impact nearshore and offshore conditions, particularly bulk carriers that are more prone to catastrophic failures. Since this area could provide habitat or needed ecological function for 12 federally protected species and seven state protected species, the exact extent of these modifications is extremely important.

In addition, we are particularly concerned about the vulnerable Pacific herring populations (a Dashboard Indicator for the Puget Sound Partnership’s recovery efforts) that spawn in eel grass beds in the nearshore habitats around Cherry Point. This formerly robust population, which is now at five percent of historic levels, was once a key building block of a critical food chain that starts with plankton and ends with orcas and humpback whales. Any action that impacts eel grass or otherwise jeopardizes this population further will have ecological as well as potential economic impact via lost fishery or tourism revenues. To lean more about the herring population at Cherry Point, read Matt Krogh’s article in the Whatcom Watch from July 2010.

Mercury: Mercury pollution is a serious threat to human health, with pregnant women and the unborn being most vulnerable to this peril. And while we have been working hard to stop domestic sources of this deadly element, the same cannot be said of operations in Asia. The shipment of this coal to China will result in more mercury in our water. In fact, a 2005 study by the United State Geological Survey drew the conclusion that atmospheric transportation is the main source of new mercury in Lake Whatcom and other Washington waterways. Thus, burning coal elsewhere, like China or other Asian countries, will increase the amount of mercury in our waterways, increasing human and animal exposure to this element. To read the article describing the sources of mercury in our waterways, click here.

Geological Peril: Coal trains are long and heavy (i.e., one and a half miles long and up to 15,000 tons). These trains are so heavy that they tend to flatten the rails, which causes much of the wheel squealing we hear during transit. These same extraordinary forces that impact tracks also act on geology. Given that much local development is on vulnerable or unstable formations such as the homes along Eldridge Avenue in Bellingham, this is a great concern that needs to be examined.


Culturally Significant Sites at Cherry Point: During the first public comment period of the environmental review process for the GPT, the Lummi Nation Indian Business Council raised a number of treaty rights and cultural impacts with this proposed project, including the threat to historically significant sites at Cherry Point and unavoidable impacts to the Lummi Nation’s rights to hunt, fish, and gather resources on traditional territory.

The terminal site, known by its traditional name Xwe’chi’eXen, is considered a significant cultural site and an ancestral burial ground by the first nations people of the Lummi tribe. Their claim to the site’s historical significance extends back hundreds of years, as it was a village site where the Lummi have fished, gathered and lived for over 175 generations. Cherry Point (Xwe’chi’eXen) is listed on the Washington state heritage register of culturally significant places.

Ancestral Burial Site: The terminal and surrounding sites are part of an ancient Lummi village, and as such is considered by the Lummi people to be an ancestral burial site. The bones of Lummi ancestors were removed from the site during archeological excavations of the 1940’s and 1950’s, but the site remains sacred to the Lummi Nation, who has long opposed development of the property.

Historical Reefnet Site: For thousands of years before European settlement, Lummi people fished at Cherry Point (Xwe’chi’eXen). The Lummi developed a unique reefnet technology to harvest salmon at the site while limiting bycatch. The sites traditionally used for this purpose (Sxwo’le) are protected by treaty and are considered both critical economic resources and historically significant areas.

Treaty Fishing Rights: The Lummi people are signatories to the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855, which guaranteed the Lummi and several other Coast Salish first nations access to traditional fishing and gathering sites. In 1975, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal court decision issued in 1974 by District Court Judge George Hugo Boldt that affirmed the rights of the Coast Salish tribes to serve as comanagers of the Puget Sound salmon fishery. The threat posed by the coal terminal proposal to salmon habitat and fishery stocks has the potential to significantly impact the treaty and inherent rights (Chi’lang’e’lh) of the Coast Salish tribes to their traditional way of life.

Social and Health Impacts

The Toll of Coal and Heavy Metal Pollution (UCS)

Health Effects of Air Pollution and Fine Particulate Matter (EPA)Whatcom and Skagit physicians comment on GPT (PDF): A group of over 200 local physicians in various specialities from family practice to respiratory health submitted expert testimony on the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement. They raise health concerns for their patients and for public health related to air and water pollution as well as noise and traffic concerns.

Department of Health comments on GPT (PDF): The Washington State Department of Health submitted a strong comment regarding the scope of the GPT Environmental Impact Statement that expresses serious public health concerns with the project. The comment was modeled from an earlier position paper authored by over 200 local physicians. Click the link above to see this comment.

Increased Cancer Rates: In addition to the mercury threat identified above, studies on the impact of train-generated diesel exhaust in Stockton, California indicated a clear relationship between the proximity to train traffic and cancer. This study observed a doubling of cancer rates within a zone of 200 yards of the rail operations. While Bellingham projected traffic levels are less than Spokane or Stockton, the relationship between diesel particulates and cancer is well-documented at multiple locations. We also have concerns that air and water pollution associated with large vessel traffic will have human health consequences as well.

Human and Property Safety: Even at our current traffic levels train-caused deaths are not uncommon. The anticipated escalation of traffic would likely increase that number. In addition, coal dust distributed on rail beds is being credited by the railroad industry with causing train derailments because the dust inhibits proper drainage of rail beds. A train derailment like the recent one in Tacoma could have disastrous consequences in downtown Bellingham and elsewhere in Whatcom County.

Regional Reputation: Many individuals, organizations, and companies have worked very hard to create a regional character or brand that emphasizes the perfect balance between urban and rural; industrial and natural; and looking towards the future while embracing the best aspects of the past. This mixture has led to Bellingham being identified as one of the happiest and most sustainable cities in North America. This is a source of pride and an important aspect of our collective self-identity. Being perceived as a portal to the single most destructive energy source on the planet jeopardizes this balance, our hard-earned reputation, and—ultimately—our happiness.

National & Global Issues

Although much is at stake locally regarding this project, the potential impacts are far-reaching as well and include:

US Job Loss: The enormous amount of coal being sent as an economic building block (raw material) to a country that is our direct competitor on the global market has direct economic impacts in terms of national job loss. Fifty-four million metric tons of coal will empower an estimated population of 5 million Chinese which will result in roughly 200,000 more workers making products bound for the US market and displacing a like amount of US manufacturing jobs. Do we really want to help accelerate this trend or should we be smarter?

Climate Change: A lot of impacts of this project can be avoided, mitigated, or reduced, but there is no escaping the fact that these shipments will result in approximately 150 million tons in new greenhouse gases annually. We can ignore or rationalize this factor because its impacts feel removed from our day-to-day lives, but we really do so at our peril.

Although much will be made in this debate about “clean coal” technologies and China’s advancements in the realm of pollution reduction and carbon sequestration, the truths in this matter are that there currently is no such thing as “clean coal” and while China is making bold promises, there is a serious performance gap. Overall, coal burned in the US is still cleaner than coal burned in China.

Energy Security: No rational national energy trajectory involves a scenario where the US will be coal-free anytime in the near future. Therefore, these coal resources from federal public lands we are so cavalierly sending to China are diminishing the energy security of our country. If the US were getting a fair price for this finite job-creating resource, this might make economic sense—but that is really not the case. The reason that China is buying our coal instead of using their own resources at present is that we are selling it at bargain basement prices.