June 24, 2011

Trains’ impact on daily life worries neighbors; would they imperil B’ham’s $2 B waterfront remake?

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By Gina Cole and Brianna Gibbs

Western Washington University 

BELLINGHAM – From its early days as a thriving logging and fishing port, through the decades of housing Georgia-Pacific West, Inc.’s paper mill, Bellingham has always had a working waterfront. Most of those industries are now gone, but even as the city prepares to transform 220 waterfront acres, it has repeatedly emphasized the need to maintain a working waterfront and increase public access to the water.

The plan is still preliminary, but the city has already invested $2 billion in waterfront cleanup to eventually renovate the area with commercial spaces, university classrooms, offices, shops, eateries, a park and even a new public library or aquarium.

However, a bulk-shipping terminal proposed at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, could bring train traffic that many are concerned would interfere with the city’s vision for waterfront development.

Seattle-based SSA Marine, a company specializing in marine terminal operations, is proposing to build a shipping terminal north of Bellingham that could hold as much as 54 million tons of bulk commodities including coal, wheat, potash (a mineral used in fertilizers), and calcined coke (a byproduct of oil refining), said SSA Marine consultant Craig Cole. SSA Marine has already signed a contract with coal giant Peabody Energy to ship 24 million metric tons of coal, equivalent to filling 370 football fields almost 15 feet deep. The terminal would have the capacity to ship double that.

If the terminal were built and operating at full capacity, the coal and other bulk commodities would be brought to the terminal via an estimated 18 additional trains that would pass through Bellingham and Whatcom County, Cole said.

Opponents of the proposed Cherry Point Gateway Pacific Terminal say the increased train traffic that would come with the project could mean cutting off access to Bellingham’s coastline and many neighborhoods and businesses for up to eight minutes, 20 times a day. Some roads to the waterfront would be cut off for a total of two hours each day, raising concerns about access, traffic, accidents and pollution.

More than 20 streets in and around Bellingham intersect train crossings spanning from Larrabee State Park, just south of the city limits, to Country Lane, north of Bellingham. Of those 20 intersections, 11 are located in residential areas and serve as the primary, and often only, access to these neighborhoods.

The trains would measure about 1.5 miles long, weigh 17,000 tons and consist of 125 cars each, said Suann Lundsberg, director of media relations for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which owns the tracks.

Even in Bellingham’s industrial prime, the trains passing through the city have never reached the numbers proposed now, said Bob Ferris, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a Bellingham nonprofit environmental organization leading the opposition to the Gateway Pacific Terminal project. Every neighborhood association within city limits has at some point complained about the existing level of train traffic, said Richard Maneval, chair of the Association of Bellingham Neighborhoods.

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike released a statement June 3 against the proposed Gateway Pacific terminal, citing possible impacts of rail traffic through Bellingham as a primary concern. Before taking his official stance, Pike suggested an alternate train route that would bypass the city and redirect the train traffic through the outlying county. However, Lundsberg said BNSF has already researched this route, and at this point it is not an option.

Maneval said the terminal proposal is a sign of industry picking up again, but economic development needs to address environmental concerns. An alternative route would not have been ideal either, because some neighborhood would be affected no matter where the trains went, Maneval said.

“There’s not a win-win situation for Whatcom County, when you think about it,” he said.

The decision whether to allow SSA to build is up to the Whatcom County Council, which will rule on permitting after an environmental impact statement is completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Natural Resources.

BNSF owns the railroad track and, as a private company, is not required to take public opinion into account. If the terminal is built, the public will have no say in the number of trains that will pass through Bellingham.

Impact on commercial areas: waterfront, downtown and Old Town

Mari Kemper, owner of Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen on West Holly Street, was unaware of the number of trains SSA Marine plans to run through Bellingham.

“Normally, we love the trains coming by,” Kemper said. The restaurant features outdoor seating located about 20 yards from the track. “It’s kind of exciting for people when one goes by.”

But Kemper said 18 more trains a day is different than the seven or eight she usually counts.

“Now I’m concerned,” Kemper said.

Kemper said the restaurant is a popular destination and kids like to play around the unblocked tracks when the weather is nice and families sit outside. There are no barriers or fencing separating the railroad tracks from people at the restaurant, and Kemper said accidents could easily happen.

Aside from her own business, Kemper said the increase in rail traffic is a big concern for what she thought was an up-and-coming waterfront area.

“This neighborhood is not doing too well,” Kemper said. “When I first moved my business here, there was a lot of hullabaloo about the renovation of the waterfront, but nothing’s happening.”

“For Lease” signs dot the windows of storefronts along West Holly Street, the main road through Bellingham’s Old Town district, which borders the waterfront development area.

Kemper said she is worried about how rumbling trains and horn-blowing will affect potential investors or buyers.

“People won’t want to drive in this part of town,” Kemper said, “and that will affect business in the area.”

The railroad tracks also line the coast of historic Fairhaven district and nearby neighborhoods, and intersect most entrances to the waterfront. Cars driving to Boulevard Park must cross the railroad tracks at the park’s only entrance. When a train is passing, the park is accessible only by foot.

Community concerns: safety and noise

Today, about 15 trains pass through Bellingham daily, Lundsberg said. Four of those are Amtrak trains.

Cole estimates that if the terminal is built and operating at full capacity, an additional 18 trains would travel through Bellingham: nine full trains going north toward Cherry Point, and nine empty trains heading south.

With increased rail traffic come increased injuries and accidents, said Jack Delay, a member of Communitywise Bellingham, a nonprofit group that has said it will not take a position on the terminal, but has spoken as the opposition at numerous community events and forums.
In the past year, nine accidents or incidents occurred on BNSF tracks in Whatcom County, according to the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis. Of those, none were fatal, and three occurred because a train was derailed. Delay said he believes these numbers will increase as the number of trains increases.

Easily accessible railroad tracks are not a major concern right now, said Bill Martin, a Bellingham resident who lives near railroad tracks. But Martin said 18 more trains per day would pose a serious risk in family neighborhoods like his, where children play.

“You really have to look at the safety perspective in these neighborhoods,” Martin said. “These are year-round family homes.”

Dean Fearing lives close to the railroad tracks in Fairhaven and said he already sees the effects of rail traffic.

“I have children,” Fearing said at an April 27 meeting of the Bellingham City Club at which both opponents and proponents of the project spoke to a standing-room-only crowd. “I know it’s going to impact my family’s life.”

People in the Columbia neighborhood, which borders the waterfront area, have worked hard to restore their homes from damage caused by the industry that used to be there, Maneval said. They are concerned increased traffic will bring back that level of grit and grime, he said.

Construction of the terminal seems inevitable, Maneval said.

“If it doesn’t happen now, it’s going to eventually happen,” he said. “It’s going to happen at some point.”

If it does, an influx of trains could rumble through Bellingham, most of them heavy with coal.

“Those trains will have very real impacts,” Ferris said. “My wife and I will hear those impacts every night.”

Ferris lives near the railroad tracks in Bellingham and said he is concerned about the safety risks and noise that will come from increased rail traffic. Ferris said the heavier a train, the louder it is, especially when it is braking to slow down through city limits.

Trains carrying coal are particularly heavy, Delay said.

“Coal trains have the heaviest loads and create the highest vibrations,” he said. “When a coal train goes by, you get a lot of rumbling.”

Peter Roberts, a real estate agent in Bellingham who lives on Eldridge Avenue 150 yards from the railroad, said his 105-year-old house shakes when trains go by. He said he often awakes to the sound of trains at night.

“It can actually wake you up from a dead sleep,” he said.

Roberts said increased rail traffic would not affect Bellingham’s housing market right away, but could become an issue over time.

Trains are required to blow their horns at every road intersection in accordance with federal law, Lundsberg said. This means that including the additional trains, horns would sound more than 660 times per day – twice as often as they do now.

Traffic delays

Getting to the waterfront doesn’t necessarily mean crossing the railroad tracks. Drivers can avoid the tracks by taking the bridge formed by Bay and Chestnut Streets or the underpasses at Seaview Avenue and Squalicum Way. However, when time is crucial, such as when an emergency vehicle needs to get through, train traffic could pose a more serious problem.

Even now, emergency-response vehicles must wait for a train to pass or go around in order to get to the waterfront, said Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd.

“It will obviously happen more frequently” if the plan to export coal from the terminal goes through, he said.

Longer trains running through more often would not necessarily cut off emergency-response routes completely, but they would disrupt them, said Bellingham Assistant Fire Chief Andy Day. This is especially true for Engine No. 1, which responds to the waterfront area, he said.

Day estimated using the bypass route when a train is going by would add about two minutes to response time, noting: “If someone’s in cardiac arrest, with a four- to six-minute window for their survival, two minutes is a long time.”

Boyd said he isn’t too worried about the potential for delays as long as the fire department can anticipate the added train traffic and adjust its response procedures to accommodate it.

“We have computerized maps on all our rigs,” he said. “We’re pretty good at rerouting.”

Rerouting traffic flow for everyday cars, however, could be costly for the city. If the community wants something like an overpass to ease the impacts on traffic flow, federal regulations say BNSF may not pay more than 10 percent of the cost — so Bellingham would have to pay the rest, Ferris said.

Environmental Impact Statement: how broad should it be?

Before the terminal is approved, SSA Marine is required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement that examines the possible effects the terminal could have on the surrounding environment.

The Department of Natural Resources determines the scope of impacts to be studied and SSA Marine is required to pay for those studies.

Cole said the company has agreed to study the environmental effects of the terminal itself, but said it will only study the effects of increased rail traffic if the DNR tells it to.

“We will do what we’re told,” Cole said during the April 27 Bellingham City Club meeting.

Maneval said this approach does not surprise him. Unless the government requires SSA Marine to take the railroad tracks into account, “it’s somebody else’s problem,” he said.

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, said the environmental impact statement should look beyond the terminal site itself, to trains, ships and other aspects of the cargo’s journey.

“If you don’t look at that whole system,” he said, “you have a badly scoped EIS.”

Felleman spoke at a May 4 panel discussion about the project alongside Pike and, among others, Jean Melious, chair of the Whatcom County Planning Commission and an associate professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University.

 “What we look at will determine how we weigh this project,” Melious said. Approving a permit for a project means approving everything that goes along with it, she said. In this case, that includes increased rail traffic.

 Gina Cole is a journalism and communication double major and Brianna Gibbs in an environmental journalism major at Western Washington University.

This story is part of a package produced by the students in the Journalism 450 class at Western Washington University. They were primarily edited by WWU Professor Carolyn Nielsen. InvestigateWest co-founder and senior environmental correspondent Robert McClure advised the students when they were partway through the reporting process, and helped prepare the final stories for publication. View the remaining elements of the package here.  

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