Islands' Sounder


Myth of coal jobs | Guest column

February 5, 2013 · Updated 12:57 PM

by Michael Riordan

Much has been made, in these pages and elsewhere, about the many new jobs to be created by the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Cherry Point. But this is largely a public-relations myth being vigorously promoted by coal terminal advocates, for obvious reasons. Here’s why.

If you look closely at the estimates of the official project economist Martin Associates (available online at http://www.coaltrainfacts.org), you discover that there will be only about 250 direct jobs at the terminal itself, at full build-out. These will indeed be well-paid union jobs for the most part, assuming that terminal owner SSA Marine lives up to its promises.

Upwards of another 100 or so Washington jobs will likely be induced in other, allied industries such as maritime and railroads, responding to the need to transport coal to and from the terminal. Those estimates of induced jobs are less firm, for they depend on the tonnage of coal actually being shipped.

Therefore something like three to four hundred jobs, direct and induced, would be created by the project at full build-out. Martin puts the figure at up to 430. Then how does the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports get the more than a thousand new jobs lauded in its press releases and TV ads, and regularly regurgitated by the media?

Here’s where the real guesswork comes in. Martin suggests that another 800 jobs — let’s call them “indirect jobs” — would be generated in Whatcom County due to the added economic activity stimulated by the terminal. More doctors, lawyers, school-teachers, shopkeepers, and fast-food clerks. A group of local economists largely rubber-stamped this figure.

But Communitywise Bellingham commissioned a third study — of the likely job losses in Whatcom County due to 18 coal trains a day chugging through, spewing diesel fumes and coal dust, disrupting traffic and making the area a less desirable place to live, work and play. It projected that potential job losses of 17 percent could occur, relative to the job growth that would otherwise happen. Figure something like that occurs in rail-line communities all the way to Seattle.

Thus any suggested increase of indirect jobs should be considered little more than a guess. That leaves only several hundred new jobs working at and around the coal terminal.

And not a single new job will be created here in the San Juan Islands. Unless, of course, one of the nearly 500 leviathan coal carriers traversing Haro or Rosario Strait annually collides with another ship or runs aground, releasing many thousands of gallons of bunker fuel into their swift currents.

Then there will be plenty of new jobs here, toiling on the cleanup crews. But those who work in our thriving tourist industry — in hotels, restaurants and craft shops, on whale-watching or fishing trips, or in bicycle and kayak touring — will have to find jobs elsewhere. For our beautiful islands will thereafter cease to be one of the nation’s premier travel destinations.

Is this risk worth it, for just several hundred jobs moving piles of coal?


Eastsound author Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy.

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