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Coal miners, from a dustier and noisier time in Bellingham. Photo by J. W. Sandison, courtesy Whatcom Museum.

Coal miners, from a dustier and noisier time in Bellingham. Photo by J. W. Sandison, courtesy Whatcom Museum.


Losing Sleep Over A Blast From Bellingham's Past

Carolyn Adolph

Bellingham, two hours north of Seattle, is a college town known for its outdoor lifestyle. A rail terminal is proposed for north of the city that could bring up to 18 coal trains through town every day. An approval process will assess the environmental and health effects of blowing coal dust, and many people wonder how they will sleep when the trains start running at night. Carolyn Adolph reports.


If you ask people in Bellingham about coal trains, they say there are already a few. This is the one around noon, running along the waterfront. And there's one in the middle of the night; it woke me up around 3:00 a.m. The hotel put earplugs right on my bedside table — I should have taken the hint.

More trains could soon yank residents out of their sleep. There's a proposal to put a terminal at Cherry Point, just north of here.

The first commodity would be coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, headed to Asia. Nine trains would take the coal through Bellingham, north to Tsawwassen on the Canadian side, then turn around and come through town empty — could be 18 more trains in all.

This is not a real estate agent's dream. Danne Neill sells homes to people who choose Bellingham for the lifestyle. Train horns in the middle of the night are not good for business, or even good for her.

Neill: "I couldn't stay here. I don't see myself long term. It's not a place I'd want to be. I mean, I live right by the railroad tracks. There are some times, depending on the wind, at like 3:00 in the morning — it sounds like it's coming right through my bedroom."

Trains entering Bellingham blow their horns so much because people can get killed at crossings, and there are a lot in Bellingham. The city was built along the tracks, and coal from Bellingham's own mines once shipped out here.

Jeff Jewell is a historian at the Whatcom Museum. He says coal is a departure from the city's vision for redevelopment.

Jewell: "It's been redefined as retirement condominiums, high–end boutique businesses — just trying to find that niche. And if you start running those trains through, that's going to conflict with that image."

The local Chamber of Commerce says there could be a way to have it all: run more trains through and protect people without leaning on the horn. The solution could be physical barriers at every crossing. That would cost millions, and it's not clear if the railway — or anyone — would pay.

Ken Oplinger is president of the chamber. He says Bellingham's economy is not producing enough jobs, and the rail terminal is an opportunity that needs to be explored.

Oplinger: "We do have a segment of our population here that would, frankly, like us to somehow put Bellingham as it exists today into some sort of a sealed dome and not let some of the things that I think a number of people here do believe need to happen in order to make this a sustainable place."

The rail lines run past neighborhoods and waterfront parks. Kids wave at trains from the boardwalk. Newcomers, like this man, stop and stare at the view.

Chico Newmann: "My name is Chico Newmann, I'm from St. Charles, Missouri. I'm a construction worker and I work for the railroad. This is my first time being here and it's a beautiful and amazing place. This is God's country. I'm noticing the contour of the land, the fresh water, the creatures, the marine life. I'm noticing the clouds coming off the mountain and it's just so intriguing and amazing. That's what I'm noticing here, and the people are friendly. Awesome. I'm thinking about staying."

Newmann's a union man. He can transfer here, and he says people in Bellingham should want the coal trains for the rail jobs: they're solid.

The terminal needs approval to go ahead. That means an environmental assessment and permitting.

I'm Carolyn Adolph, KUOW News.

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