Although the proposed Gateway Pacific export terminal in Bellingham is miles away from communities like Puyallup and Sumner, opponents are worried increased rail traffic that would take coal to port along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe route would exacerbate congestion, prevent first responders from doing their job effectively and leave behind unwanted coal dust and diesel emissions.
Lauri Hennessey, a spokesperson for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, represents the views of labor groups that favor the completion of the export terminal and the positive impact it would have on the statewide economy. The alliance, a nonprofit group, was formed last summer.
“Our coalition came together to explain the benefits of doing this project,” Hennessey said. “If our state decides not to export coal, it will go through Canada. BNSF already carries coal through Canada. The Bellingham project is a chance for the U.S. to export coal and create jobs.”
The Gateway Pacific export terminal is one of three proposed terminals between Washington and Oregon. The other two are the Millennium Bulk terminal in Longview and the Port of Morrow in Oregon.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County are preparing an environmental impact statement on the effects that the Gateway Pacific terminal and modifications to the BNSF Railway’s Custer Spur would pose. That follows the collection of more than 120,000 scoping comments between last November and December.
“We released the initial scoping report, and that is available online,” said Patricia Graesser, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Seattle district office. “That details all the 120,000 public comments received, and we’re working on how to determine what to cover in the draft (Environmental Impact Statement).”
Hennessey said the three proposed terminals would bring in an estimated 11,000 trade-dependent jobs combined, and they would include short-term construction jobs for about two years.
She said opponents who argue the export terminal operation would add an additional 18 trains per day to the BNSF tracks that run through rail towns like Puyallup and Sumner is not true.
“Train volumes through any community ebb and flow based on several factors: market demand, economic conditions and customer needs,” said Courtney Wallace, spokesperson for BNSF. “In regard to the Gateway Pacific terminal, increase in train traffic will depend on the market demand. While the facility is permitted to accommodate between one to nine loaded trains a day, it is simply too soon to know what the market demands will be when the facility opens.”
Wallace said that, in Puyallup, there are currently 50 trains that pass through daily, on average.
“We will work to ensure we provide the capacity needed to accommodate market demand with the fewest number of trains possible, which is how we have long operated the railroad, because it is more efficient to handle more volume with fewer trains,” Wallace said. “The three existing (east-west) BNSF routes through Washington have available capacity and offer flexibility in ensuring network fluidity.”