The Cole Train: Loads of BS

At the request of the Edgemoor Neighborhood Association, Craig Cole (Mr. Coal) appeared at Fairhaven Middle School last Thursday to represent the interests of his employer, SSA Marine, proponents of the Gateway Pacific Coal Port.

First off, I want to congratulate Craig on his extremely professional presentation. With a few minor complaints, he amply demonstrated why he gets the big bucks from the bad guys. He mostly kept his cool, was quite well organized, and did his best to seem sincere. Nobody really bought it.

Mr. Coal's approach was simple and effective. He led off with his local credentials: Attended Fairhaven Middle School - like his dad and kids, lives on South Hill, his family has been here for a hundred years, and he has a long history of working to make the community a better place. Has he lived here all his life? Not yet! While with the County, he worked to help define what could be approved at Cherry Point. Now, he is working to get it approved.

Then he laid out his oversimplified bonehead assertions, capably shifting what I often refer to as "the indignity of explanation" to the public. This project, he said, will comply with all environmental regulations, create jobs and pump desperately needed cash into the economy. What's not to like? Matter settled! Now it's your job to refute it.

"Mr. Coal" brought a number of handouts, including an open letter from the Central Labor Council. This piece attacks the notions that coal dust and diesel emissions from this project will be bad for us, stating that it takes "certain levels of exposure" to diesel exhaust and "extremely heavy and lengthy exposure" to coal dust "before adverse health effects occur." It assures the public that this is unlikely because the project will meet "modern high environmental standards." That's a relief! The letter singles out Dr. Frank James, former Public Health Official and member of Whatcom Docs. In the closing section, it characterizes Dr. James as illogical, irrational, disrespectful, unfair, inaccurate, probably a bad diagnostician, and only concerned because he lives near the railroad tracks.

In fairness to Mr. Coal, it wasn't his letter. This might excuse the irony of his rather quick insistence that folks not get personal with him in their remarks during the Q&A period. However, he did bring Chris Johnson of Central Labor with him, who did sign the letter. Chris' sole additional contribution was to respond to a question on Triple Bottom Line by admitting he didn't even know what it was, that his bottom line is more money and better jobs. Folks laughed politely. I find it astounding that Central Labor is so eager to get in bed with coal, considering that industry's record with worker safety and union contracts.

Another handout defined the issues with the coal port. In short, According To The Document (ATTD), there aren't any! ATTD, it will bring in jobs, lots of them! These numbers keep jumping around, but Mr. Coal assures us it will be a needed improvement in any case. ATTD, trains are so much more efficient than trucks that we don't really need to worry about air quality. Never mnd that no one moves coal by truck and there will probably be a least ten times as many locomotives belching their way across town. ATTD, rail traffic will not affect waterfront redevelopment. The Port Director and Commission President say so! Operations, including vessel traffic will not, ATTD, affect marine life. These matters have been extensively studied, will probably get studied some more and government regulators will be conducting ongoing inspections. In fact, ATTD, not a single noisome effect will be detectable beyond the project boundary. Whew!

On the subject of traffic delays, proponents reference a port study that claims the 18 or so train trips per day will cause waits of only about four minutes each. That, ATTD, is just over an hour wait per day in exchange for over 1,000 jobs. Wow! Just how impatient are folks? They can't be that selfish! Of course, when you factor in many folks waiting for the trains and time for the traffic jams to resolve, and add it up over the many trains - day in, day out - well, that's a whole 'nother cost to the community, and another example of why no one is buying this bull. For instance, if 100 people have to wait four minutes for each train across town and it takes four additional minutes for traffic to clear, that's eight minutes a day times 100 people times 18 trains times 365 days, well, that's over 3,600 days a year of sitting around in idling cars and traffic jams. I guess it just depends on your perspective! It probably means little to the trains. They don't have to wait, and the coal port will appreciate their punctuality.

Besides an informational broadsheet featuring lots of green ink and reiterating these comforting assertions, the last document found on the seats as we arrived was an article from I'm not really sure why they brought this one. Maybe they thought no one would read beyond the bold quotation. The handout featured a bold snippet asserting that in terms of economics and climate change, exporting coal to China is a "non-issue." The rest of the article, however, admits that "total coal burn" is a factor in the "fate of the climate." It describes developing coal exports as "a moral hazard zone" that is missing the opportunity to examine "this economic crossroads" and suggests we need to "replace the fossil fuel economy." It points out that air quality is a legitimate concern distinct from climate. It also describes the market for U.S. coal as "marginal…responding to short-term disruptions or spikes in demand." In fact the pullout quote is attributed to Robert Morse, director of research on coal and carbon markets at Stanford University. Mr. Morse is also one of the authors of a December 2010 report entitled, "Remaking the World's Largest Coal Market: The Quest to Develop Large Coal-Power Bases in China." This document suggests China will need U.S. coal for probably only about ten years due to a regulatory disconnect between energy and coal producers there, and the need to reinvest in their coal technology.

This very document earlier had me thinking the likelihood of this coal port getting built was slim. Maybe it is a ruse for Longview. Can they really pay off $700m of investment in ten years? However, after listening to the bull, when I saw the perspective rendering of the proposed facility, I started taking it seriously. The rendering shows a modest pile of coal and a smaller area for potash and grain storage. The dock shows only two ships in queue. But there is a lot more room there. What I sensed was a piecemeal approach to a much larger scale operation. I got worried. I wondered if any potash or grain would ever be shipped. I started thinking about all those trees they "accidentally" knocked down during their misguided geotechnical preparations. When I asked Craig about them, he hesitated just long enough to make me wonder before saying they are still lying there, knocked down. Inexplicably, not nearly enough downed trees appear in the photos County Councilmember Carl Weimer documented in his now famous dog walk in the woods. Where did they go? Craig says they are still there. That, unlike most assertions for this project, is an empirically determinable fact. Let's find out.

The point here is that if the trees were removed for any merchantable purpose, the property is indisputably qualified for the six year moratorium on development they have apparently just weaseled out of. A six years wait would likely kill this project according to Stanford's predictions. The regulators Mr. Coal asks us to trust gave the project a pass on their illegal forest practice and threw away the best "silver bullet" we had. I have been trying hard to stay out of this coal-tar pit, but I advise those already wading into the quagmire to ascertain the fate of those trees and challenge the determination that let the project off that hook.

My impression was that folks left feeling unconvinced and chagrined at Mr. Coal's integrity. Indeed, pretty much everyone has liked him and wants to like him. It's just harder now. It was too much for Edgemoor neighbors to hear that SSA is a local, award-winning steward of resources. These are the same folks that got their start stevedoring with a long-term sweetheart lease from family friends at the Port of Bellingham. They brought us proposals for overdevelopment of Chuckanut Ridge and Governor's Point. Now they want to pop the cherry out at the point. It's all cut from the same cloth and it is a disappointment to see Craig wearing it.

OK, this is already too long and I didn't even want to write it. John twisted my arm. Many people spoke and offered very good observations and concerns. I invite you to take a minute and comment on those that struck you as most important.

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About Tip Johnson

Writers • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms on the Bellingham City Council and has worked on many community boards and committees. He travelled with the Federal Transit Administration and Department of Commerce on mass transit trade missions in SE Asia and Africa before settling down to focus on keeping public interests at the fore of local government and the course of growth and development.

Comments by Readers

Wendy Harris

Dec 04, 2011

Any discussion of SSA’s plan to use the proposed Birch Bay in lieu of fee mitigation program to obtain reduced wetland buffers? They are really trying to pull another fast one on us.


Tip Johnson

Dec 05, 2011

Yes, Wendy.  The subject did come up.  I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the name of the person asking if SSA was behind it.  Craig asked for her contact information and the next day an email arrived from the Northwest Jobs Alliance (, Subject Line: GPT Corrects the Record—Did Not Initiate Proposed Change to Birch Bay Watershed Rules. This message includes the assertion, “Contrary to unsubstantiated claims by project opponents, neither SSA Marine, nor its Gateway Pacific Terminal project, have sought or are seeking the amendment that is the subject of a Whatcom County Planning Commission public hearing on December 8, 2011 (file #PLN2011-0012). At this time, the company has no position on the matter.”

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