Monday, March 26, 2012

Coal conundrum

Wickersham—and part of the proposed alternate route—as viewed from muleback. 
There is trouble brewing in paradise: those of you who live near me, Fenway Bartholomule, might know that a coal shipping terminal has been proposed for picturesque Whatcom County. This terminal, by my calculations, is proposed to export hundreds of thousands tons of coal each day from strip mines in Wyoming, Canada, and Montana to markets in China and beyond. The obvious routing choice for these trains would be the main Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway: a railway which runs through the wild Chuckanuts, past the quiet neighborhoods of Fairhaven and Bellingham, down into the vital downtown waterfront of our county seat, and out to the waiting ships at the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Plan B, which is even more devastating to yours truly, is the alternate proposed route: the Farmland corridor, which runs by my door. The quiet tracks sit roughly 30 feet from my mailbox and my rhododendron bush . . . 80 feet from my organic carrot bed . . . 90 feet from the little barn where I rest my head at night.

The three or four trains per week that use this spur run slowly, moving closed freight cars at a placid pace from Burlington through the Skagit Valley to Sedro-Woolley, then through the sensitive wetlands of the Samish headwaters and into the South Fork Valley of the Nooksack River. They trundle past Bent Barrow Farm before rolling through the raspberry cane- and jersey-cow dotted landscapes of northern Whatcom County. 

About a year ago, Bellingham's then-mayor Dan Pike wrote the following about the Sumas route which passes by our door: 

"Alternative route that avoids Bellingham must be considered.
Reducing freight train traffic along the shoreline and through Bellingham, thus reducing contact with and impacts to population and business centers;
Improving passenger rail timetables and the ability to expand passenger service;
Providing greater flexibility to meet future market conditions for both BNSF and SSA, and creating track/route redundancy during natural disasters.
While relief from community impacts of increased freight traffic must be addressed, an even more important alternative must be considered, and included in the EIS process: use of Burlington Northern's existing route from Burlington to Sumas, instead of the coastal route running through Bellingham.
Requiring use of Burlington Northern's Sumas line as the primary route for Cherry Point SSA deliveries, as well as for the current deliveries to Roberts Bank, would have the following important benefits:
It is absolutely in the interests of all parties that this alternative freight route be studied as part of the EIS process. This is a win-win solution that must be on the table."

I, Fenway Bartholomule, happen to think that Dan Pike should have taken a stand against coal trains, period. For the sake of Wickersham, of Bellingham, of Whatcom County as a whole, and of Wyoming and Montana and the atmosphere and our fragile global ecology. There are no good long-term reasons to dig coal out of our hills and send it to China. None. 

We are all atwitter here in this little agricultural community about the looming threat: We see how BNSF used delayed stage timing to bypass environmental review in Montana's Tongue River region, and we predict that they could use similar tactics to avoid including the South Fork Valley in their environmental impact studies this time around. A 1992 Commerce Corridor Feasability Study made the following determination on the subject of creating an industrial fast-track for goods through Wickersham, and it shows clearly why the powers behind this movement will try to avoid including the route in their initial surveys: 

"The current alignment of the WCC has significant natural constraints, will impact several small rural and agriculture based communities, and has potential fatal flaws, specifically for segments of the corridor that impact small and rural agricultural communities, and those segments that  have  long  term  impacts  on  species  habitats  and  watershed  areas. Regulatory  and  land  use issues also present a key obstacle in that communities may need to modify their comprehensive plans.  Moreover, existing environmental review processes in Washington, although functional, are currently not equipped to handle a project of this scope, and pose significant pre-construction risk for the private sector."

Here's what I think could happen if we are not careful: BNSF, Goldman Sachs, and SSA Marine could conduct their environmental impact studies on the shore route. They could determine that it would be acceptable to run more coal through Bellingham, and they could go ahead and obtain approval for the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point.  And then—what? Well, they could decide that they needed just a bit more track time. That nine or ten mile-long trains per day were not enough to meet the globe's insatiable appetite for dirty energy, but that twenty or twenty-two trains per day could do the job. And then . . . then, when all the studies were finished, licenses issued, facilities constructed, and permissions secured . . . they could reroute traffic through Wickersham. They could do this, and I suspect that they will have planned to all along. I think this is coming. 

We are seeing ominous signs: New traffic signals marked "emergency warning" now flash on the quiet highways leading to and from the train trestles in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. A dozen lumbering machines and a busy crew just replaced every railroad tie between Burlington and Route 9, the turnoff to Wickersham. Track maintenance crews roll up and down the railway next to my farm with much greater frequency than they ever have before. 

FarmWife and FarmHusband are trying to learn more about the most effective way to get involved, and are hoping to join county residents in creating a rights-based fight based on the work of Coal Free Bellingham. They have already warned me that we cannot live here if coal trains live here too. Wickersham, as we know it, would cease to be. 

To learn more about anti-coal train efforts, you may visit these websites: 

And finally, for a bit of entertainment, witness the Acme Elementary School principal and his band, Band Zandt, performing their new original song "No Coal Trains."

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