The federal government’s rejection of a massive trans-oceanic coal-export terminal was long-awaited good news, and not just for the Northwest tip of Washington where it was proposed. Monday’s decision by the Army Corps of Engineers also provided relief to the South Sound, which would’ve seen an undesirable increase in coal trains chugging through communities such as Tacoma, Puyallup and Sumner.
There were all sorts of reasons not to like the idea of building the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. On the local level, public health and safety concerns emerged along the multi-state rail corridor. On a broader level, the plan was founded on backward thinking, a desperate clinging to the last dregs of a filthy fossil fuel that has exacerbated global climate change.
But the Corps killed the facility with one stroke by examining a single reason: the threat the giant wharf and trestle posed to fishing-treaty rights that the Lummi Nation has held for 160 years.
In the Tacoma area, residents can breathe easier knowing additional diesel exhaust and coal dust spewed by passing trains will not worsen the already tenuous air quality here. Tacoma officials had expected to see at least 17 more coal trains move through the city each day. They would have hauled full and empty rail cars back and forth between Whatcom County and mine operations in Wyoming and Montana.
The planned export terminal and its constant stream of feeder trains also didn’t bode well for the Pierce County economy – certainly not the part that relies on moving freight efficiently. Already, a surge in trains carrying North Dakota crude oil in recent years has created a nightmare for farmers and shippers who need reliable rail access to move products to market through the Port of Tacoma. In 2014, a train backlog put crews from Tacoma Transload at least a month behind in loading grain on container ships.
As a whole, the rail system through Pierce County promises to get smoother in the next few years. BNSF is investing in infrastructure improvements. And when the Point Defiance bypass route goes into effect, passenger trains will divert through Lakewood and South Tacoma, clearing track space for freight trains along the waterfront and through the Tideflats.
But adding several 7,000-foot-long coal trains to the mix each day would’ve been a clear case of one step forward, two steps back.
Some observers might be tempted to draw parallels between the death of the coal-export terminal at Cherry Point and the recent demise of a proposed natural-gas-to-methanol conversion plant in Tacoma.
Both involved shipping millions of tons of a U.S. energy source to Asia. Both were strongly opposed by grassroots activists and an influential Indian tribe. The developers in both cases had halted their environmental reviews several weeks before their projects died. And both had big, red bullseyes on their backs because of the scale of their plans – the West Coast’s largest coal-export facility, and the world’s largest methanol plant.
The comparisons are fair, but there’s a key difference: The methanol plant developer, Northwest Innovation Works, pulled the plug on its plans of its own volition. The Gateway terminal developer, SSA Marine, wanted to proceed but was denied a critical federal permit.
The coal-terminal denouement goes to show that a system based on careful evaluation by regulators and years of patience by stakeholders can actually work.