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Proposed Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal: A Scientific Case Against the Cherry Point Site

December 2013

Cover Story

Proposed Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal: A Scientific Case Against the Cherry Point Site

by Michael Riordan

Michael Riordan lives on Orcas Island, where he writes about science, technology and public policy. The author of "The Hunting of the Quark" and co-author of "The Solar Home Book," among others, he is a founding member of the San Juans Alliance, a coalition of island environmental groups opposed to the proposed coal terminal.

From health and environmental perspectives, the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal could hardly have been sited at a worse location.

Designating Cherry Point as the site will require coal trains over a mile long to traverse dozens of communities from the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area north to Bellingham, blocking scores of railroad crossings while spewing diesel fumes and releasing fugitive coal dust. Although the noxious dust can be reduced by spraying the carloads with sticky liquids called “surfactants,” this procedure is at most 90 percent effective. Powder River Basin coal dries out and cracks in transit, according to knowledgeable industry insiders,1 so its dustiness increases as the trains approach Seattle, potentially affecting nearly four million people in the area.

Diesel particulate matter is however not controllable — unless BNSF Railway can eliminate it by electrifying rail lines or converting locomotives to natural gas. In 2012, it was definitely established by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen, responsible for lung cancer. And the many cars, buses and trucks idling at railroad crossings will further exacerbate the adverse health impacts, notes UCLA Professor of Environmental Sciences Arthur Winer, a national expert on diesel exhaust fumes.2 How many additional cancer deaths would this large Washington population have to suffer due to an added 18 trains a day chugging through its midst?

Siting a coal terminal at Cherry Point also has worrisome implications for the accompanying vessel traffic. The nearly 500 titanic bulk carriers annually loading coal there would have to pass twice through treacherous Haro or Rosario Straits in the San Juan Islands. A collision or grounding in their swift tidal currents could well unleash a million gallons of bunker fuel and possibly thousands of tons of coal into these racing waters, endangering threatened populations of Chinook salmon and southern resident orcas. And the nearly 1,000 transits per year of these huge ships would substantially worsen the already high underwater noise levels these species endure, according to physicist Val Veirs, who has been studying this problem for years.3 They would add the underwater equivalent of three jumbo jets transiting the Straits daily.

But perhaps the worst problem of all is that this ill-conceived terminal site lies smack in the midst of one of the windiest corridors in the entire state. As University of Washington meteorology professor Clifford Mass and colleagues observed in a peer-reviewed publication, “Strong outflows of arctic air through the Fraser Gap into western Washington occur approximately once or twice a year” — bringing gale-force and occasionally even hurricane-force winds to Cherry Point.4 Just imagine how such fierce winds would play havoc with open-air coal piles 60 feet high.

In December 1990, for example, hurricane-force winds menaced the area not once but twice. Winds with speeds upwards of 100 mph uprooted hundreds of trees in the San Juan Islands, blew away roofs and sheds, and swamped boats anchored in local marinas.5 Luckily, it happened before any towering coal piles got in the way.

It gets worse. These strong northeasterly winds from the Fraser River Gap (as experienced in early December 2013) would blow fugitive coal dust laden with toxic heavy metals and carcinogens such as arsenic, lead and mercury out over Georgia Strait, the usual and accustomed fishing grounds of the Lummi Nation, and directly into the primary spawning grounds of the dwindling Cherry Point herring population. Previously the base of the Salish Sea food chain, supporting seabirds, salmon, and the orcas that feed on the salmon, this population has plummeted by over 90 percent in recent decades.6 A few such coal-blowing peak-wind events could sound its final death knell — and perhaps that of the salmon and orca populations dependent upon it, too.

And scientists with the US Geological Survey recently uncovered two active earthquake faults near Cherry Point, one onshore and the other just offshore, both capable of a magnitude 6.5 quake.7 Other faults are suspected several miles out in Georgia Strait, according to marine geologist Gary Greene, who has been surveying the sea floor around the San Juan Islands.8 Should such an earthquake strike during terminal operations, hundreds of tons of coal would likely end up spilled into the waters off the Point. The impacts on the local tidelands and eelgrass beds, plus the herring and Dungeness crab feeding nearby, would be devastating.

SSA Marine and its coal-terminal planners are making a big mistake. They spied a deep-water basin just offshore of Cherry Point, able to accommodate some of the world’s largest ships, but have pooh-poohed all the daunting environmental and health problems that accompany their choice. It’s time they admit their error, stop bombarding the public with promises of a few hundred high-paying jobs loading coal, close up shop, and begin searching for another, less problematic site.

Or perhaps the industry might do what an increasing number of thoughtful people across America are urging: leave the nation’s Powder River Basin coal in the ground until truly effective means, if any, can be developed to burn it cleanly without adding to the existing global overburden of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and oceans already.


1 Roderick J. Hossfeld and Rod Hatt, “PRB Coal Degradation — Causes and Cures,” available at

2 Arthur M. Winer, Ph.D., “Local and Regional Air Quality Impacts: Human Exposure, Health Effects and Environmental Justice,” Gateway Pacific Terminal EIS scoping comment #6641.

3 Val Veirs, “Shipping Noise in the San Juan Islands,” PowerPoint presentation to Friends of the San Juans meeting, September 2012.

4 Clifford F. Mass et al., “A Windstorm in the Lee of a Gap in a Coastal Mountain Barrier,” Monthly Weather Review (February 1995), pp. 315–331; quote on p. 316.

5 Ibid., pp. 316–318.

6 Lisa Stiffler, “The Real Story of Puget Sound’s Disappearing Herring,” Sightline Institute, May 2013; available at

7 Harvey M. Kelsey, et al., “Holocene faulting in the Bellingham forearc basin,” Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 117, B03409 (2012).

8 Gary Greene, email to M. Riordan; 16 January, 2013.

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