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Originally published Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Guest columnist

The cherry pit: Bellingham area as a gateway of coal to China

Guest columnist Noble Smith argues against a proposal to allow a terminal near Bellingham to serve as a shipping point for China-bound coal.

Special to The Times

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THE Chinese need coal. They consume more than 3.2 billion metric tons every year to run the factories that make all of the junk we buy. The only way for American coal companies to get our cheap federally subsidized coal to China is to ship it across the Pacific Ocean.

That's where my town comes in. Bellingham, population 80,000. My wife and I moved here with our kids to get out of the hectic city life and be part of a special kind of community.

The good citizens of Bellingham pride themselves on their parks and social consciousness, their interurban trails and thriving farmers market. It's a peaceful, gorgeous place with hordes of runners and bikers and kayakers and great public schools.

I know what you're thinking: "The perfect place for North America's biggest open-air coal dump," right?

As proposed, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad will be transporting 48 million metric tons of the black rock every year — all the way from Wyoming, through Seattle, Edmonds, Mukilteo, Everett, Marysville, Stanwood and Burlington, then straight through our city center to a harbor just north of here called Cherry Point. From there, it is bound for China.

If you lined up all those coal cars for a year from end to end they'd stretch from Seattle to Beijing!

The Cherry Point facility is owned by Carrix, one of the biggest shipping companies on the planet. Carrix would have us believe (in their multimillion-dollar local ad blitz) that Carrix is a "family-owned business" that just wants to do good things for our county. What Carrix CEO John Hemingway forgot to tell us is Goldman Sachs, those exemplars of business ethics, bought a 49 percent stake in the "family owned" company.

Carrix wants us to think the company is actually doing something benevolent by shipping our country's coal to the Chinese. It's a good idea, we've been informed, to send low-sulphur American coal to China because otherwise they'll be using that nasty dirty coal that everyone is so worried about.

The reality is that the coal we send to China will significantly increase sulfur and other dangerous emissions into the atmosphere, both in transporting it across the ocean in bulk freighters, as well as when it gets burned up in all those Chinese factories that aren't equipped with technology to burn coal in a cleaner way. And those heavy metals (like mercury) come back on the jet stream and end up in our watersheds.

We here in Bellingham (as well as every other town along the BNSF Interstate 5 corridor route) will have to get used to living with the increased train noise, the loss of property values, the messed-up traffic, the stinky diesel fumes from the train engines, increased cancer rates and enough coal dust to make us curse the industrial revolution.

Our mayor, Dan Pike, recently announced his opposition to the coal terminal, citing both the detriment to the environment and public health as well as the high economic costs to the city of Bellingham. He also blasted Carrix's "blatant defiance that they should change their plans in any way."

Gov. Chris Gregoire, however, supports shipping coal from Washington state even though she has signed a bill to phase out coal power in Washington by 2025. And U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen states he would rather export coal to China than jobs.

But it's our County Council that will make the final decision, likely sometime next year, on whether the Cherry Point harbor receives its all-important shoreline permit. The majority of council members are pro-growth, at least for now. Three of the seats on the council are in the hands of Whatcom County voters this November.

I fear I might end up like that guy in Tiananmen Square standing up to the tank. But instead I'll be on a railroad track facing down a 15,000-ton train engine full of coal.

Noble Smith is a documentary producer and freelance writer living in Bellingham.

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