City: Coal trains a cause for concern

By Sara Bruestle | Jun 13, 2012

A company’s proposal to build a coal-exporting terminal just north of Bellingham has city officials concerned with how the project’s increased rail traffic would impact Mukilteo.

Pacific International Terminals Inc. has proposed to build a marine terminal to export bulk cargoes – mostly coal – from Cherry Point in Whatcom County. The project would mean another 18 trains moving coal north through Mukilteo each day, County Planning Manager Tyler Schroeder said.

As it is now, 60 trains per day roll through the city. Eight are Sound Transit commuter trains. Two are coal trains with more than 100 rail cars, which are about a mile to a mile and a half long.

“There would be nine trains coming in and nine trains coming out of Mukilteo,” Schroeder said. “There may or may not be impacts associated with those additional trains.”

The mayor and City Council are concerned that noise, vibrations, pollution and impeded waterfront access could result. The city recently sent a letter to Whatcom County, requesting that officials review the issues and mitigate them.

“For Mukilteo, it makes sense to make sure that issues related to our waterfront and our community are addressed as they work on that project,” said Councilmember Jennifer Gregerson, who requested the letter be sent.

“Even if it’s just 10 more trains a day, it doesn’t sound like a ton, but if they’re long trains that are rumbling through Lighthouse Park every single day, that’s a significant impact.”

The National Environmental Policy Act requires that the county complete an Environmental Impact Statement, which also will be reviewed by state and federal agencies and by Indian tribes. County officials have yet to decide the scope of the EIS.

Schroeder said the city’s concerns are valid, and that they will be reviewed in the EIS. He said the county has already received hundreds of comments on the project.

“We’re going to be looking at those and studying them in more detail as we prepare the EIS,” Schroeder said, adding that the county is working jointly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Ecology on the EIS.

The environmental review process is expected to take about two years. The first opportunity to comment on the project is summer 2012.

In the letter, the city said it supports the project in that it will provide economic and job benefits throughout Washington state. It is estimated that the terminal will create 1,250 jobs and generate $11 million in tax revenues annually.

“It’s good jobs,” Mayor Joe Marine said. “Why would we want to stop something that is creating jobs?”

However, city officials are still worried about pollution from trains idling along the city’s shoreline, as well as impeded access to the waterfront, such as to Lighthouse Park.

The mayor said he’s especially concerned for residents at Naketa Beach who have to walk across the train tracks to get to their homes.

“I don’t want trains coming and idling sometimes for hours and days on end,” Marine said. “It’s not only the noise and the vibration from a train, but the smell of that diesel that our residents will have an issue with.”

Marine said coal dust –the focus of many environmental groups and others opposing the project – is a non-issue for Mukilteo.

“It’s been spilling coal dust going through the Midwest, and if it’s still spilling coal dust, there’s not going to be a lot of coal in that train,” he said.

The Gateway Pacific Terminal would include new rail lines, warehouses and bulk storage on 1,092 acres in Whatcom County, as well as a pier and trestle for three ships. It could import and export about 46 million metric tons of cargo a year, Schroeder said.

The terminal would be served by the BNSF Railway, which spans the Northern Tier and Midwest, from Washington to Illinois.

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