A coal train passes through Everett.

A coal train passes through Everett.

A victory for coal train opponents, but not the end of the line

TULALIP — Monday’s decision by the federal government to deny a permit for a coal-shipping terminal in Whatcom County has sweeping implications for people across Snohomish County.

Rail crossings, Native American treaty rights, the debate over shipping fossil fuels by rail — all those issues are in play.

The Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point was intended to be one of the largest ports for export of U.S. coal to markets in Asia. SSA Marine and Cloud Peak Energy proposed shipping coal by rail from Montana and Wyoming to the terminal north of Bellingham.

The Lummi Nation opposed the project and asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny the terminal’s permit. The Lummi were joined by several other local tribes in opposing the plan, including the Tulalip Tribes and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

On the other hand, one tribe, the Crow Nation of Montana, which has coal mining interests, signed a deal in 2015 to take a 5 percent stake in the terminal if it had been approved.

On Monday the Army Corps denied a permit application for the terminal, ruling that it would infringe on the Lummi’s treaty-guaranteed fishing rights.

The immediate victory over Big Coal, however, is just one event in a much longer time frame. Other projects might still come back. SSA Marine might alter its project proposal to avoid conflicts with tribal rights.

Or the company might sue the federal government over the decision.

Or another company could come along with a different proposal, starting the whole process over again.

“I think one of things I get out of this is, there is a process, and when we stay with the process, it works,” Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon Jr. said.

Beyond the principle of defending treaty rights, the Tulalip Indian Reservation would also experience direct effects by the increase in train traffic just on the other side of I-5.

“What we worried about is emergency services that have to cross the tracks,” Sheldon said. “A delay could be very painful.”

The Tulalips also keep an eye on tanker traffic in Puget Sound, which sometimes passes through tribal fishing areas.

“In the late ’80s and ’90s when there were more fish around, the fishermen would get on the radio and talk to Seattle traffic or the ships themselves, demonstrating that we could work together,” Sheldon said.

On the other side of I-5, Marysville has long borne the brunt of rail traffic, including oil trains rolling to the refineries in Anacortes and Ferndale.

The defeat of Gateway Pacific Terminal means only that rail congestion will worsen at a somewhat slower pace.

“I think from Marysville’s perspective it doesn’t change a great deal because our concern was always about traffic impacts on our businesses and residents,” said Mayor Jon Nehring.

The main BNSF Railway line runs the length of Marysville, crossing city streets at grade in more than a dozen locations. Already long trains have caused traffic backups all the way up onto I-5.

A report prepared for the Puget Sound Regional Council in 2014 predicted freight rail traffic in Washington growing 130 percent to 238 million tons of cargo by 2035, even without the Cherry Point coal terminal.

That would amount to 27 to 31 more trains per day between Seattle and Spokane and up to 10 more per day between Everett and Vancouver, B.C.

“In the last 4 to 5 years the increase in congestion is noticeable due to rail traffic,” Nehring said.

The trains also appear to be longer, he said, making for longer wait times at crossings.

Marysville’s solution has been to look at over- and under-crossings for the tracks. It also is pursuing a new on/offramp from I-5 to Highway 529. That would create a new southern portal to the city that bypasses the tracks.

The Highway 529 interchange project received funding in the Legislature, so some relief is expected once it’s built several years from now.

But Nehring said it’s not feasible to build a $25 million interchange for a smaller surface street without outside financial support, which might mean pushing the federal government to impose fees to offset the effects of increased rail traffic.

“Industries that benefit from using the rail ought to have some skin in the game when it comes to constructing these grade separation projects, whether it’s Edmonds or Marysville or Burlington or wherever,” Nehring said. “It shouldn’t be left up to the taxpayers to support these.”

Edmonds has a similar problem. The city only has two at-grade crossings, but both are in the heart of downtown and they separate the waterfront and the Washington State Ferries terminal from the rest of the city.

“The whole waterfront is held captive to the passage of trains,” said Patrick Doherty, Edmonds’ economic development and community services director.

When a train struck and killed a pedestrian April 19, the crossings were blocked for hours and ferries rerouted to Seattle.

People needing to get from one side of the tracks to the other, including some medical responders, had to cross through an empty train car, Doherty said.

Edmonds also is exploring other alternatives to at-grade crossings, and plans to present several of them at an open house Thursday.

Dealing with the effects of increased fossil fuel production is not something any one municipality can take on by itself, especially when their interests conflict with those of railroads or interstate oil and coal companies. Leaders from some Puget Sound-area cities and tribes have joined forces in the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, with the explicit goal of monitoring rising fossil fuel shipments and protecting communities from negative effects.

Even outside the alliance, there’s recognition that the solution to problems connected to the coal and oil industries need more resources than what’s at hand.

“These are issues that have to be solved at the federal level,” Nehring said.

The April death in Edmonds was tragic, but these days there’s always the fear of a bigger catastrophe in a downtown, such as an oil train fire.

“We’re pretty vulnerable to what could happen,” Doherty said

For the tribes such as Tulalip, protecting their treaty rights is an ongoing process that also requires working together. In the case of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, that proved successful.

“We all have a common concern and a quality of life that each of us tries to give to our citizens, and when that becomes endangered we all coalesce together,” Sheldon said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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