The three candidates battling to become mayor of Edmonds are on board with either concern or outright opposition to a proposed shipping terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, 17 miles from the Canadian border.
Seattle-based SSA Marine is behind Gateway Pacific Terminal, a shipping pier for exporting bulk commodities, including coal, which China has a huge appetite for.
It’s the latter commodity, in addition to increased rail traffic through Edmonds, that has united incumbent Mayor Mike Cooper and mayoral candidates Dave Earling and Roger Hertrich. All three are on the ballot for next month’s primary election, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election in November.
Cooper is one of numerous mayors in Western Washington, incuding Dan Pike in Bellingham, voicing concerns to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has remained neutral on the terminal. Cooper wants the state to be the lead agency on the project's environmental review. As it stands now, both state and federal regulatory agencies are involved.
“This project has potential job creation and economic opportunities for Whatcom County,” said Cooper, who stresses that he is asking for a complete study and information as opposed to being for or against the project at this point. “However, there is a strong case for a corridor-wide study of the impacts and needed mitigation along the entire Puget Sound coastline.”
Coal, specifically, would arrive from the coal-producing states Montana and Wyoming, traveling on the rail corridor from Spokane, through the Columbia River system and north through Puget Sound.
Cooper said he is concerned about probable adverse economic and environmental impacts to Edmonds resulting from increased rail traffic and contaminants, such as coal dust. He pointed out that the Burlington Northern Santa FE (BNSF) rail line runs through Edmonds along 4.5 miles of coastline lined with homes, a marina, and several city parks, including the nationally known Edmonds Underwater Park used by divers.
Cooper points out that only two crossings exist for accessing Edmonds' waterfront—Dayton and Main streets—both of which are at the same level as the railroad tracks. One of those is the ferry loading lane, the only at-grade crossing in the Washington State Ferries system.
“Currently, 60 trains a day pass through our community,” said Cooper. “Each freight train delays pedestrian and car traffic an average of six minutes, leaving our waterfront inaccessible for six hours in each 24-hour day. An additional 10 to 20 trains a day without crossing improvements is not acceptable.”
In addition to delays and the health and environmental impacts from coal dust, Cooper named two other factors for his concerns about the terminal: decreased tourim and waterfront activities due to increased congestion at the city's two rail crossings; and decreased levels of service on local and state roads, including increased delays during ferry loading.
SSA Marine says that during the two years of construction, the proposed terminal would create about 4,000 jobs and about $54 million a year in tax revenue for state and local services. Once in full operation, SSA Marine estimates that Gateway would provide almost $10 million a year in tax revenue. It would create about 280 permanent family wage jobs and nearly 1,400 additional jobs through terminal purchases and employee spending.
Gateway Pacific has an FAQ on its website addressing a number of questions presented by critics.
But, for many, it seems environmental concerns remain a top concern and must be addressed.
“I have very serious concerns about this proposal,” said Earling. “I'm all for jobs and economic development, but there are serious impacts to our community given potential train traffic along our city's waterfront. I support the current solution of Whatcom County and the state government doing a complete environmental assessment of this proposal. The full impacts must be understood and thoroughly addressed, which I (would) work with state and local leaders to achieve as mayor.”
“The economy is important, but what do you sacrifice for that?” said Hertrich, who is concerned about coal dust, which as a dry bulk commodity is not packaged. “You lose more than you gain in the long run. “I’d be happy to stand down and block the tracks, along with all the other mayors, if I were elected.”