Whatcom County must weight costs of industry’s economic, environmental impacts



August 6, 2014

A recent op-ed column by John Huntley and Brad Owens, co-chairs of the Northwest Jobs Alliance, claims industrialization of Cherry Point resulted from “decades of careful thought and planning” and describes the environmental community as “strident and aggressive advocates of de-industrializing our economy.” We take issue with both statements.

Northwest Jobs Alliance may say they are concerned about all industrial jobs at Cherry Point, but their actual mission, according to their Facebook page, is to support “the Gateway Pacific Terminal – one of the largest industries to ever enter Whatcom County.”

In truth, Gateway Pacific Terminal would be quite small in terms of its jobs contribution to Whatcom County if allowed to build what would be the second-largest coal terminal in North America in the Cherry Point aquatic reserve. Its project information document lists 213 terminal jobs at full build-out. We ignore induced and indirect jobs for this analysis because all economic activities have multipliers.

Whatcom County is not desperate for jobs. Our unemployment rate in June was the lowest it has been since 2008; 10 percent lower than the state average, and 15 percent lower than the national average, according to state figures. With 108,520 jobs in 2012, according to the Washington Employment Security Department, Gateway Pacific Terminal would increase jobs by 0.2 percent.

Gateway Pacific Terminal likewise would add little to our tax base. They claim a potential contribution of $11 million in state and local taxes. Rail impacts alone dwarf that. A recent study by the Puget Sound Regional Council concluded that one-third of crossings studied would benefit from grade changes (construction of over- or under-passes) to address the 18 additional trains, at a cost of $50 million to $200 million per intersection. Federal law limits the railroads’ contribution to 5 percent.

The Federal Railroad Administration lists 82 at-grade crossings in Whatcom County. If only 10 percent required grade changes, at the lowest cost estimate of $50 million per intersection, it would take 37 years for all tax revenues generated from Gateway Pacific Terminal to cover the costs of some of its local traffic impacts.

We believe, however, the aquatic impacts are potentially more significant than rail. Gateway Pacific Terminal’s proponents expect 487 annual vessel calls, many of which would be the largest cape-class bulkers on the waters, intended to transport U.S. coal to Asian markets. Those bulkers would jockey with oil tankers through the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Haro and Rosario.

An incident resulting in a significant spill at Cherry Point would devastate what is already a fragile ecosystem. As recently described by the Puget Sound Institute of the University of Washington Tacoma Center for Urban Waters, nearly a third of the Salish Sea’s birds are now classified as “species of concern.” Recent studies cited link the decline of populations of marbled murrelets and Western grebes, in particular, to the 90 percent decline in Cherry Point herring stocks measured since 1973.

Declining forage fish populations also affect chinook and other salmon and, ultimately, orcas. This has implications for the outdoor recreation economy, which the Outdoor Industry Association estimates supports 227,000 direct jobs in Washington with $7.1 billion in wages and salaries, contributing $1.6 billion to state and local revenues.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that state-wide:

– wildlife watching generates $1.5 billion in annual economic activity, supporting 26,000 jobs;

– commercial fishing contributes $1.4 billion, supporting 14,000 jobs; and

– sports fishing contributes $1.1 billion, supporting another 14,655 jobs.

A single vessel incident at Cherry Point resulting in a major spill could destroy or significantly decrease the outdoor recreation and fishing economies of San Juan and Whatcom counties. Yet, from 1954, with the construction of what is now the Phillips 66 refinery at Cherry Point, to the present, no one has conducted a study to determine the economic costs associated with industrial activity at Cherry Point.

We have never called for de-industrialization of the county. Given the scale of the proposed coal terminal, however, we do argue that agencies must accurately characterize and quantify the economic and environmental risks associated with Gateway Pacific Terminal.


Terry Wechsler is a Bellingham special-interest attorney and co-founder of Protect Whatcom. Fred Felleman is a marine biologist and Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth. They co-developed, for Healthy People/Healthy Planet, the Gateway to Extinction info graphic after researching all then known regional fossil fuel transportation proposals. For more information online, go to projectwhatcom.org.