Coal cargo terminal at Cherry Point raises concern

A coal train passes along the Bellingham waterfront between a popular hotel/spa and the Taylor Street Dock.

By Phillip Holder

Special to

The San Juan Islands face a significant increase in large cargo ship traffic under a proposal to build the largest yet coal terminal in North America at Cherry Point, near Ferndale. Annually, ships measuring up to three football fields in length will make over 950 passages (nearly three per day) transporting tens of millions of tons of Wyoming coal to China.

SSA Marine/Carrix (owned 49 percent by Goldman Sachs), Peabody Coal, and BNSF railroad want to move 48 millions tons of coal annually, from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin strip mines on publicly owned lands, to a 350 acre coal terminal to be built northwest of Bellingham. Carried by up to 18 uncovered trains a day, each up to 1.6 miles long, the coal would be piled at Cherry Point. To prevent spontaneous combustion, the coal will have to be turned over regularly with huge front-end loaders – creating significant dust. From the coal terminal, the coal will be loaded on Capesize — too big for Panama Canal passage — and Panamax ships, and transported  through the Salish Sea for burning by power plants in Asia. The ships would return empty of cargo, each carrying up to 17 million gallons of Asian ballast water, to be released before coal reloading at Cherry Point.

Proponents tout that jobs will be created at Cherry Point, and say that the proposal will help the trade balance between the U.S and China.  But some on the islands and the mainland wonder whether the overall costs of this scheme actually exceed the benefits, and point to several potential impacts on communities, businesses, and the Salish Sea ecosystem.

“In the San Juan islands, 95 percent of the herring that is available to be eaten comes from the shallows around Cherry Point,” said Russell Barsh, director of Kwiaht, the Lopez-based Center for the Historical Ecology of the Salish Sea. “Cherry Point is the last remaining spawning area that hasn’t been severely impacted by people, and a coal terminal there would have a huge negative impact. Herring is the basis for marine life in the central Salish sea, and we don’t have enough as it is to support seals, dolphins, salmon, and sea birds.”

Barsh also raises concerns about increased shipping traffic,

“There’s too many close passes and close misses,” he said. “With so many of these huge ships navigating our waters, it’s only a matter of time before there’s a major accident, and the consequences to sea life would be extremely high.”

Other potential problems include:

-loss of tourism, customers, business revenues, and jobs, and damage to the islands’ quality of life

-delays of ferry and private marine transportation;  safety hazards to small fishing, commuter, recreational, and tour boats;

– spillage of coal, oil and/or fuel from vessel mishaps

– traffic delays at “at-grade” rail crossings on mainland traffic routes connecting to marine transportation to the islands

– substantial taxpayer revenues required to mitigate these impacts.

SSA Marine is required by federal and state law and Whatcom County regulations to obtain several permits from federal, state, and local government agencies. The permitting process will include preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement under state and federal laws to address the impacts of the project. The initial step in preparing an EIS is called “scoping.” During the scoping phase, members of the public can raise issues they believe need to be studied. The scoping period has not yet been announced but is expected sometime this spring.

“The whole situation is very interesting to me. Enduring impacts from natural resource exports to other countries is perhaps an unfamiliar phenomenon for the U.S. but it is very commonplace in developing countries,” said Chom Greacon, a member of the Islands Energy Coalition and an international energy consultant.  “A difference here is that much of China’s hunger for coal (75 percent of energy demand is from the industrial sector) is driven by  exports of consumers goods to countries around the world, including the US. So in a way, consumption in the U.S. is partially responsible for the demand for coal extraction and export. It’s certainly crucial to consider the impacts of the coal train but also important to connect the issue to a more personal level.”

Lopez residents can hear details and ask questions at the “Ships, Spills and Sea-Level Rise – Coal Hard Truth” forum, moderated by Matt Krogh, North Sound Baykeeper with RESources for Sustainable Communities on Tuesday, Feb.7, 6 – 8 p.m., Lopez Center for Community and the Arts.

On Thurs. Feb. 9, a similar forum will be conducted on San Juan, Feb. 9, Friday Harbor High School Commons, 6 p.m.


Editor’s note: — Phillip Holder lives in Mount Vernon. He has been working on coal-related issues since July. Chris Greacon and Doug Poole of the Islands Energy Coalitions contributed to this article.