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Cherry Point Coal Terminal Update: Carl’s Dogs and the Case of the Curious Clearing


September 2011

Cover Story

Cherry Point Coal Terminal Update: Carl’s Dogs and the Case of the Curious Clearing

by Preston Schiller

Bellingham resident Preston L. Schiller has been involved with transportation and environmental issues for more than 25 years as a citizen, alternatives advocate, researcher and teacher. He is co-author of “An Introduction to Sustainable Transportation: Policy, Planning and Implementation”(Earthscan, 2010) He has had direct experience with coal, public health and environmental and community destruction in West Virginia.

Nary a day went by in July and August without some astonishing news on the coal front. Just when you thought that the coal terminal proposal and related activities might be slowed to a crawl while SSA scrambled to assemble new permit applications for site expansion and shoreline activities, just when you thought that you might have a bit of a summer’s respite from dirty coal, just when you thought it was safe to hike, bike, or paddle without worry, just when you planned, as Carl Weimer did, to take a quiet and relaxing hike with dog pals—just then you bumped up against a massive and destructive clearing of sensitive areas in the area proposed for the Cherry Point coal terminal.

The Case of the Disappearing Wetlands

Who could have imagined that, among his many other talents, Whatcom County Councilmember Carl Weimer was a skilled dog whisperer who trained his pooches to hunt down land use law violators? This apparently was the case in mid- July when Carl & hounds flushed out the illegal bulldozing of roads at the site of the proposed SSA-Carrix Cherry Point coal terminal, a.k.a. Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT). Carl quickly pulled Whatcom County’s Planning and Development Services into the case of the disappearing wetlands and shortly thereafter serious violations were recorded.

As soon as Weimer went public with this matter at carlvotes.blogspot.com cyberspace resonated with news and analysis of the SSA violations: John Servais at nwcitizen.com; legal beagle Jean Melious carefully documented and analyzed the record of permits and pertinent documents at getwhatcomplanning.blogspot.com; the dynamic duo of Bob Ferris and Matt Krogh at RE-sources.org continued their fine work both in research and watchdogging this issue and presenting the environmental and community perspective to the media; and former Bellingham City Councilmember John Watts began to address the issue with many insights at bellinghamstertalk.blogspot.com. In addition to the wealth of blogger attention, considerable media attention was brought to this issue: Floyd McKay along with Bob Simmons and Daniel Jack Chasan at crosscut.com continued their thoughtful coverage as well as KING5 TV news reporter Jake Whittenberg who gave us an Aug. 1 feature that included aerial photos of the several roads that had already been cleared along with footage of Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen (“shocked, shocked!”) who asserted that “They (SSA) have a lot of explaining to do … and a slap on the wrist is not what we’re looking at …” Returning from a week’s vacation Bellingham Herald reporter John Stark quickly resumed his coverage on Aug. 1 and informed us that Pete’s “more than a slap on the wrist” amounted to a $2000 fine and $2400 fee “to cover county staff costs in dealing with this issue.” Tim Johnson at the Cascadia Weekly continues to give some coverage to this issue.

Pete must not pack much of a punch: $4400 in fines and fees is nothing more than a feather tickle for SSA—but the outing of their brazen culpability is worth a fortune in anti-terminal proposal publicity.

The Coal Month That Was

• 15 July 2011: The Wall Street Journal reports that Peabody Energy is set to invest in Chinese coal mine development and produce at least 50 mil. tons per year. Hmmm, isn’t that amount equal to the SSA proposal for Cherry Point?

• 16 July 2011: Carl and Canines flush out SSA’s illegal clearing at Cherry Point.

• 18 July 2011: Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn warns of Seattle impacts if Bellingham coal terminal is built (article by Bob Simmons at crosscut.com)

• 19 July 2011: Whatcom County’s Planning and Development Services begins investigation.

• 20 July 2011: Thomas Powers’ (retired U. Montana prof.) report released (link at sightline.org) concluding that U.S. coal exports would drive down the price of coal thus maintaining and lengthening China’s dependence and usage.

• 21 July 2011: New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s foundation donates $50 mil. to the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign. (see: “What you can do” below)

• 26 July 2011: Bob Simmons at crosscut.com covers the Bellingham City Club luncheon presentation where Gov. Gregoire is a “firm neutral” on the coal terminal/trains issue: She opines that “the coal bound for China will be coming out of the Mountain states, but it’s an open question whether the port will be in Washington or Canada.” Hmmm, isn’t this the same “inevitably argument” spun by SSA (see coal article in Whatcom Watch’s April, 2011 issue)? Is this the same Gov. Gregoire who is denying Bellingham representation in the State’s Multi Agency Permitting (MAP ) team shaping SSA’s environmental review? The same Gregoire who was boosting the coal terminal a few months ago? Now neutral?

• 27 July 2011: Floyd McKay at crosscut.com brings attention to a Whatcom Council of Governments (WCOG) study by consultants led by Bruce Agnew of the Cascadia Project of the Discovery Institute, Seattle: “Rail traffic serving the huge Westshore coal export terminal south of Vancouver has become so intense that trains have backed up as far south as Bellingham because of the traffic. BNSF’s six daily coal unit trains are among the users of Canadian Pacific lines leading to Westshore.” See August 11 (below) for more on this matter.

• 28 July 2011: Carl Weimer’s carlvotes.blogspot.com presents the ugly graphic details of his codehounds’ discovery of illegal clearing at the SSA site, news quickly spreads across the Bellingham blogosphere and beyond.

• 29 July 2011: Bob Simmons article at crosscut.com reveals how the illegal SSA clearing caught public officials by surprise and how SSA attorney William Lynn (of Gordon Thomas Honeywell — discussed in the Aug. 1 issue of Whatcom Watch) is quick to try to blame the “confusion” on Whatcom County’s Planning and Development department. Terminal Coalitis spreads as RailAmerica, the owner of the rail line that serves Grays Harbor (Aberdeen & Hoquiam) begins a study of prospects for siting a coal terminal there for shipping coal from Montana and Wyoming to China.

• 31 July 2011: Veteran environmental journalist Joel Connelly at seattlepi.com writes a thoughtful article about potential impacts of coal trains on Seattle. Now if The Seattle Times would only give the issue such depth of attention!

• 1 August 2011: was a very very busy day for coal news in Whatcom County: first a coalition of public interest groups attempting for years to negotiate a settlement with SSA about environmental protections gave up in frustration, especially after SSA greatly expanded its proposal and engaged in illegal land clearing (see John Stark’s Politics Blog). Perhaps this frees the groups and their representatives from a prior bind on criticizing SSA and will allow them to more freely participate in the opposition to the proposed terminal. Then SSA’s Gary Smith blamed all the confusion about its land clearing on Whatcom County. Then KGMI radio gave an unusually good amount of air time to SSA’s illegal clearing. Then Jean Melious weighed in at her blog site with a very insightful background piece. Then, just when SSA thought it could take two aspirin and go to bed, KING5 TV did a feature at the cleared wetlands.

• 3 August 2011: was another very busy day for coal news: www.goskagit.com, reported that “(C)ounty commissioners wrote a letter to the governor’s office last week expressing concerns about how the project would impact rail traffic and infrastructure in the county. The letter also asks that the county be included on the governor’s Multi-Agency Permit Team (MAP Team) that is reviewing the project and its impacts.” Go Skagit! Then Eric de Place, sightline.org, released a report stressing that it is unlikely that much US coal can be shipped through Canada since their railways and ports are operating near capacity (again taking away another of SSA’s & Co. “inevitability arguments”). Then John Stark blogged about how SSA’s Bob Watters released a statement about their illegal land clearing admitting “mistakes were made,” and “SSA Marine’s standards were not met …” Stark also reported that “(S)ome type of organization (with access to the Democratic Party’s list-serv) that is backing the Gateway Pacific Terminal project appears to be trying to recruit grassroots (coal terminal) supporters by telephone.” SSA denied knowing about this.

• 4 August 2011: At http://blog.re-sources.org Matt Krogh posts much valuable material about the illegal SSA clearing, some of the material was included in Jean melious’ blog on that issue.

• 8 August 2011: Jean Melious blogged on “Community Health and the Gateway Pacific Project.”

• 9 August 2011: Whatcom Docs issues press release at a newly launched website coaltrainfacts.org that emphasizes the health hazards associated with coal.

• 11 August 2011: WCOG’s executive director Jim Miller and consultant Bruce Agnew of the Cascadia Center (Discovery Institute) report on the released draft of their rail capacity study to the Northwest Business Club. As reported by John Stark they try to put a happy face on the coal face by conjuring up visions of all the great rail improvements that SSA’s Cherry Point and other coal projects in B.C. could bring to our region, to passenger rail, to Canada and to the world. One might wonder whether the elected officials who, supposedly, comprise the governing body of the WCOG authorized such boosting of this questionable project.

The author of this article sifted through the 349 pages of the draft report and its appendices only to find little that was new, much that was cut and pasted or appended from previous reports, and less that was heartening. Not emphasized in the NWBC presentation but found in remote corners of the report documents are disturbing facts such as the slowing of Amtrak Cascades trains due to coal train traffic already occurring and the inability of the rail line to handle much more freight, least of all numerous long, slow coal trains. Nor does it address whether the peoples of the U.S. and Canada are sufficiently informed of all the issues and whether they are willing to pay hundreds of millions in rail and crossing improvements to help the rail and coal interests earn more billions of dollars for their owners or whether the same peoples are willing to underwrite the risks inherent in public-private partnerships that are being touted for this project. Also lurking in the report was an intimation that BNSF was shifting more trains, especially coal trains into night-time hours so as to avoid some of the rail congestion north of the border. This author wonders whether their whistles blaring all night is a punishment to Bellingham opponents.

• 16 August 2011: Earthjustice, the environmental law organization representing several local interests, informs Whatcom County that, under its own statues, it must impose a development moratorium for six years at SSA’s Cherry Point proposal due to its clearing constituting an illegal conversion of forestry to another (as yet) unpermitted use. KING5 News reports that the Puget Sound Keeper has collected coal samples deposited along the BNSF line in Seattle.

• 17 August 2011: Jean Melious considers how a moratorium at SSA’s illegally cleared site might work at getwhatcomplanning.blogspot.com/

• 18 August 2011: Trying to sell a coal terminal to a resistant public must be hard on one’s well-being. The CEO of the controversial coal terminal proposed for Longview resigns in order to “spend more time with his family.”

• 19 August 2011: And just when I thought I might put this article to bed in time for the press to roll, in time to finish other projects and take a little late August or Labor Day vacation from dirty coal, “a memo and files arrived on my cyber doorstep informing me that, after a cozy Aug. 12 meeting with SSA, the legal minds of the State’s Dept. of Natural Resources and Whatcom County do not consider SSA’s illegal clearing to be a “conversion” of forest land to another purpose unless and until that is proven. So Pete’s “not just a slap on the wrist” has to be rescinded and the county needs to do more homework to identify just what SSA’s violations were. So the coal trains issue rolls on and the terminal issue does not cease.

Watch this last issue carefully: it is full of wide ranging ramifications. Legal and political analyst Jean Melious at getwhatcomplanning.blogspot.com/ will most assuredly have some comments on this one. The documents, and many others, can probably be found at the website for Whatcom County’s Planning and Development Services; http://co.whatcom.wa.us/pds/plan/current/gpt-ssa/index.jsp. §

What Can You DO Against SSA Coal?

Something you can do while waiting for the next episode of “How the Coal rolls:” Since the Sierra Club is the recent beneficiary of a $50 million grant from New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s foundation you can urge Sierra Magazine (sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org) to quickly publish an article about the Cherry Point SSA proposal along the lines of the article they published a few months ago about the Longview coal terminal issue. While you are at your computer why not drop a line to the Sierra Club’s Washington State chapter; cascade.chapter@sierraclub.org urging them to get some Bloomberg grant-funded staff boots on the ground in Whatcom County.

And when you are done with that please ask the Washington State Rail Division (freight@wsdot.wa.gov) to study the extent to which the current expanded coal train traffic (longer trains than the usual freight trains) along the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe mainline as well as the E-W Canadian coal trains just north of the border (where there is an extremely congested junction) are slowing passenger trains between Vancouver, British Columbia and Portland. This is especially relevant because Washington State, Sound Transit, Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation have given large sums of money to Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Corp. and Union Pacific Corp. for sidings and other improvements as part of agreements to help improve passenger train travel times.

And then please show your support of Whatcom Watch’s efforts with a donation.


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