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Published: Monday, January 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

14,000 weigh in on coal trains

A few people have put in their two cents' worth on a plan to build an export terminal near Bellingham that would mean more trains carrying coal through Western Washington.
A few people, as in 14,000.
While nearly half of those comments have come as signatures on form letters, still more than 7,000 others have come from individuals and various organizations. The total includes more than 1,100 comments received at seven public hearings held around the state the past few months.
The deadline to submit comments is Tuesday.
The comments have been collected not to gauge public opinion on the controversial plan, but to determine which issues should be examined during an environmental study, said Larry Altose, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology.
"We're not really looking at the comments in terms of pro and con," he said. "A lot of them are couched in pro or con language, but we're not going to have a track of that."
The $650 million terminal, proposed by SSA Marine, would serve as a place to send coal, grain, potash and scrap wood for biofuels to Asia. The terminal would bring up to 18 more trains per day through Snohomish County, nine carrying coal and other materials and nine empty.
Proponents say the terminal would create jobs. Opponents say it could mean long traffic delays at railroad crossings and pollution from coal dust. Environmental groups say it would contribute to greenhouse gases by adding to the use of coal.
The plan has drawn so much interest that three different agencies are handling the process: the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County.
Consultant CH2MHILL, an international firm with offices in Bellingham and Bellevue, has been hired to help the government agencies with their work, Altose said. The company is being paid $970,000, with the cost covered by SSA Marine.
A decision on whether the project can proceed will likely take at least a couple of more years. The next step is for consultants to sort through the comments and government officials to determine the issues to be studied. This will likely take several months, Altose said. Then an environmental study will be drafted and more comments collected.
"Don't look for that in anything less than a year," he said.
Afterward, the final study will begin and it's uncertain how long it will take.
The trains would bring coal from Montana and Wyoming across Washington state to Vancouver, and then north, eventually running through Seattle, Edmonds, Mukilteo, Everett, Marysville and Stanwood. In Edmonds, Marysville and Stanwood, the trains run at the same grade as automobile traffic, potentially adding to backups.
Marysville officials sent a six-page letter to the agencies outlining their concerns. Marysville has 11 public and nine private crossings where roads and rails meet, city administrator Gloria Hirashima said -- the most of any city in Snohomish County.
These crossings, all near I-5, already experience significant traffic congestion and more trains could make it worse, Hirashima wrote.
"A terrible scenario for the city would be having all I-5 entrances blocked at the same time," she said, listing crossings at Fourth Street, 88th Street NE and 116th Street NE.
Study topics should include how many road or rail improvements would be needed to offset additional congestion, how much they would cost and who would pay, Hirashima wrote.
She added that the trains could hurt the city's economy by interfering with access to businesses.
On the positive side, the construction work on the terminal would create up to 1,700 jobs and 4,400 temporary spin-off positions, and eventually the terminal would employ 450 people and generate 800 other jobs, said Craig Cole, a consultant working for SSA Marine.
Economic impact will be weighed along with the other issues for possible study, Altose said.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

To comment
Written comments on the Gateway Pacific export terminal plan will be accepted electronically up to 5 p.m. Tuesday and by mail if postmarked by that day.
Online comments may be sent to http://www.eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/get-involved/comment.
Hard-copy comments may be mailed to: GPT/Custer Spur EIS, c/o CH2MHILL, 1100 112th Ave. NE, Suite 400, Bellevue, WA 98004

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