Sunday, March 27, 2011

Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear...

Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad was a railroad that was built in northwest Washington State, between the town of Bellingham, Washington, to the town of Sumas, Washington to connect with the Canadian Pacific Railway for a continental connection.

The company was incorporated in California on June 21, 1883. After the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Tacoma over Fairhaven, Washington on Bellingham Bay, local railroad boosters along with Nelson Bennett at their head started the B.B. and B.C. Railroad in 1891.

A line around the north side of Lake Whatcom to the Blue Canyon coal mines was completed as many short lines to numerous logging camps. Signs of these old roads can be found through out the county.

The B.B. and B.C. was taken over by the Bellingham and Northern Railway in 1912, which in turn was taken over by Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway in 1918.

NW Citizen's article posted recently poses some potentially very plausible scenarios regarding the proposed coal exporting terminal at Cherry Point, plus some other useful links.

But the ideas discussed aren't really new; they are recycled from various parts of our history, beginning about 1883 or so, then repeated at intervals from the beginning of the 20th Century, when JJ Donovan proposed a direct rail route to Spokane through Glacier and Cascade Pass, to the 1980's, to the present - with other whistle stops in between.

For those who remember the 'Lone Ranger' radio broadcasts, this latest coal hype sounds a lot like a "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear."
As much as we may have liked the Lone Ranger and his good exploits, he was a fictional character.
So is the concept of 'Clean Coal', which tries to substitute Mr Clean for the real Coal Miner with his blackened lungs.
Of course, 'yesteryear' was also a time when natural resource extraction was paramount in these parts, and dreams of making Bellingham a major west coast rail terminal were actively promoted.

Why, any enterprising entrepreneur could become almost as rich as a railroad robber baron, with a little luck and access to the bountiful timber, coal, gold/minerals, fish and other local natural resources!
Alas! The railroads instead followed more logical routes, relegating Bellingham largely to a secondary, spur status.
But hope springs eternal, and demand for raw materials - as well as value-added goods - follows dynamic market forces.

Now, China -which already supplies many of our value-added products- wants cheap raw materials/fuel to expand its ability to create more jobs to expand its burgeoning economy.
And, who in the name of free markets can blame them?
After all, who really believes in 'triple bottom line accounting?
[For those unfamiliar with the term, it means paying more than winking attention to actually balancing critical social and environmental aspects as integral parts to an economic evaluation]

It is distressing that even after over a century of so-called growth and progress, we [some of us anyway] are still dreaming about making huge corporate profits by strip mining a fossil fuel, hauling it 1500 miles by train, then several thousand miles by ship, and delivering it at $14 per ton to our major competitor.
And that's not counting the impacts of laying new track over rich farmland, building a huge marshaling yard and terminal to handle continuous train loads of coal, and further distressing our scenic and sensitive coastal and inland waters with a monstrous ship loading facility, and its attendant noise, airborne dust and, stormwater pollution and run-off directly into a rich aquatic breeding ground for species that feed our valuable salmon. [and us]

All of this effort is to expand the continued burning of coal, at a time when we already know its polluting costs!
Any economic benefits from local [short term] construction, jobs and operations will be enjoyed by very few, and likely be dwarfed by the air pollution and jobs created in China, not to speak of local public infrastructure subsidies likely required and negative impacts to our living environment.

And, let's don't forget the mitigation and/or adaption costs to Bellingham and Whatcom County, and quality of life that has promoted us to multiple 'Best Places' lists.
What do you expect happens when continuous, noisy trains are unleashed to dump their poisonous loads onto awaiting mega ships to ply our local waters on their way to polluting foreign air -which will eventually return to us bearing particulate matter and ever more green house gases?

You'd think that a country/region so technologically advanced as ours would think more than twice about returning to those short-sighted practices of the past century.
After all the visioning, planning and effort/expense that has into sustaining a viable economy, environment and quality of life, it would a shame to nullify our collective investment as a community.
But hey, the incentive for indiscriminate corporate profits still seems to reign supreme, doesn't it?
Small wonder since our highest court has ruled corporations are equivalent to people!

Some of us recall the idea of a bulk terminal at Cherry Point to haul trainloads of grain across northern Whatcom County from Canada.
That scheme was being promoted by Port of Bellingham Commissioner Scott Walker, among others, about 10 years ago, which reflected a long term fixation on building big industrial facilities in that area.

Unfortunately, that particular fixation refuses to die, despite the expensive economic development report -commissioned by the Port- which recommended dramatically different strategies, like allowing infill from regional businesses to occur more naturally in the corridor between the Vancouver, BC and Seattle.
In fact, the Port was so surprised by the [$250k] Deloitte & Touche Report that they actually asked the consultant to reconsider/alter its recommendations! [They refused]

Subsequently, the Port & City have collaborated in trying to redevelop our waterfront, with the existing shoreline BNSF Railroad a significant impediment. [It's hard to imagine the Railroad permitting -or building- a second track along this route, anyway, due to multiple factors, not the least of which are safety and ecologically related]

In the meantime, Whatcom County has not been supportive of either the Waterfront Redevelopment or the Port's role as lead agency for economic development. You have to ask, 'what does each jurisdiction have to gain or lose' from the proposed Coal Terminal?
I suspect the Port will be involved in some capacity, since products would be entering and leaving Whatcom County across borders and shorelines, but I don't know.
Whatcom County's position is likely more political. First, they will welcome ANY additional jobs or revenue, almost without regard to details like negative impacts. Second, since northern County cities like Sumas, Lynden and Ferndale see themselves as potential beneficiaries, the County administration will likely be happy to claim any credit for the Terminal going forward, especially during economic hard times - which do provide some political cover.

Without access to any more facts that we have now, I don't believe the Coal Terminal proposal is a good thing for us, either now or in the future. Like Cinderella's slipper, it just does not fit her ugly step-sister!
While economic health is something that does benefit our community, it should not be necessary to accept EVERY idea that comes down the pike without critical examination. Sometimes, it is necessary to just say NO.
In light of the recent earthquake-caused tsunami that created the most recent radioactivity problem in Japan, this link provides information that puts our global situation in truer focus:
From one perspective, nuclear power has been remarkably safe. The 1986 Chernobyl accident will ultimately kill about 10,000 people, mostly from cancer.
Coal plants are much deadlier: the fine-particulate air pollution they produce kills about 10,000 people each year in the United States alone.

Whatcom County is a county located in the U.S. state of Washington. Its name ultimately derives from a Nooksack word meaning "noisy water."
Think we ought to make some noise about this issue?
We can do better - much better!