On The Ground In Grays Harbor

Apr 2, 2012

Six ports in the Northwest are now considering building export terminals to bring American coal to Asian markets. One of those ports is Grays Harbor – west of Olympia. 5 million tons of coal could move through that port each year. If that coal is burned in places like China that would be the same as putting about two and a half million new cars on the road. But the new terminal represents much-needed jobs in this county – and that has people talking.

It’s still dark at the longshoremen’s union headquarters at the port of Grays Harbor.

Weathered men stand around sipping coffee in work vests and heavy boots. One by one they come up to the counter to be assigned work for the day.

Tom O'Connor: "Number please?"


"Ok, you’re on the dock, on the pulp."

Tom O'Connor: “My name is Tom O’Connor and I’m the relief dispatcher for local 24 Aberdeen. We have a pulp ship working today and it takes pulp bails and we’re trying to get that loaded and out of here.”

Pulp is a timber product that is mainly used to make paper.

About 20 union men go out to work forklifts and cranes, hauling the bales of pulp in the rain. When the timber industry was in full swing more than ten times that many men came to work here every day.

Joe Sliva: I grew up in a longshore family. My dad did it, my grampa, my uncle. So just being a part of that is something special. The longshore union here is a pretty small local so it’s kinda like family.  

Joe is a young member of the union and has lived in Grays Harbor all his life. Unemployment here is almost twice as high as it is in Seattle. He says a new export terminal would ease that strain.

Joe Sliva: “Every time we get more ships in you know it creates more jobs so that coal facility would bring that many more jobs in. I think it’s something the community could use.”

A company called Rail America is considering building a terminal in this port big enough to export 5 million tons of coal to Asia every year.

It would be on the outskirts of the city of Hoquiam, which shares this port with Aberdeen. It could mean up to a million dollars a year in taxes and revenue and about 60 full time jobs.

In this small city, that’s got people talking.

[Door opening, register noise, beeping]

Jennifer Arnold: "Good morning. How are you? You here for your fritter?"

[Register sounds there you go, drawer closes]

Jennifer Arnold: “My name is Jennifer Arnold and I own Bill’s XL bakery.”

Jennifer Arnold’s shop is filled with beautiful donuts.
Every night she hand makes the cherry turnovers, fritters, danishes and frosted cake donuts that line her shelves.

Jennifer Arnold: “I own a business here and it’s tough. The economy is tough and so it would be nice to draw some new workers in town so they could come enjoy my goodness.”

A paper mill closed last year and 200 people lost their jobs. Jennifer’s bakery felt that loss.

Jennifer Arnold: “…Because I used to have a lot of clientele from people that would buy donuts to take to work to share with their fellow workers and a lot of it has stopped because they don’t have the money or they’ve lost their job.”

Arnold’s 23-year-old son Cameron also helps out sometimes. He doesn’t have a job right now.

Cameron Arnold: “I been turning in resumes and stuff but for a young adult it’s hard to find a job here in Grays Harbor. This coal thing would open up a lot of jobs for the harbor. I think it would be cool.”

The coal that will create these jobs will most likely be sent to China and burned for electricity. Scientists are concerned about what those emissions could mean for the global climate, but Cameron’s not worried.

Cameron Arnold: “Temperatures change, climates change, but it’s all part of the ecosystem that we live in and I think this global warming thing is just a big money maker. Hype, exactly and I pretty much just think it’s all just hype. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”

But even here in this bakery, opinions differ.

Scott Whitney: “How you doing?"
Cameron Arnold: "I’m doing good. How are you doing?"
Scott Whitney: "Very good. Just on my way to the Y.”

Scott Whitney’s a regular at Bill’s XL. He knows when Cameron’s birthday is and has him over to do odd jobs around the house. But they differ on the coal issue.

Scott Whitney: “It’s another extractive enterprise. Maybe we’re going to end up energy independent or whatever the phrase is while the rest of the world is still burning coal and we’re all connected.”

On the more local level, Whitney worries about coal coming through this community. If the terminal is built that could mean two more trains per day, moving past the local schoolyards, playing fields and a wildlife refuge.   

Scott Whitney: “You know I personally worry about things like coal dust and degradation of the environment because it is something that’s so important out here. That’s my biggest worry.”

A new terminal would mean about 100 more large ships coming in and out of port every year - each one big enough to carry 50,000 tons of coal. Environmentalists worry about the potential for accidents.

The port commissioners will ultimately be the ones who decide whether or not to proceed with the new terminal.

Jack Thompson: “Jobs make the world turn round.”

Jack Thompson is one of them. He and the other commissioners have put together a list of the things they want addressed.  

Jack Thompson: “…And if all that’s reached and it’s going to provide jobs I’m sure we’re going to approve it.”

The commissioners have raised concerns about water and air quality issues.

And then there are the trains – which can be over a mile long.

[Walmart parking lot sounds fade up]

Elmer Hickson: “Yeah, there’s train tracks right there. I’ve had my share of those train tracks.”

Just a few miles from the port, the train tracks cut across all the entrances to the Walmart shopping center. When a train comes through, there’s no way in or out of the parking lot.

Elmer Hickson and his family just finished their weekly trip to Walmart. He’s putting groceries in the back of his old black SUV.

Elmer Hickson: “I’ve had to sit out there an hour and a half waiting to get into the Walmart parking lot. Then every once in a while you get in your car and you try to come out and there’s a train going by and you have to wait another half an hour. They get you coming and going.”

Despite the inconvenience, the possibility of more trains doesn’t phase Hickson, if it means more jobs. He’s a commercial fisherman but says a lot of his friends are out of work.

Elmer Hickson: “There isn’t nothing here. That’s fine, two more trains? That’s nothing compared to putting more people to work here. There’s a lot of people that don’t have jobs that are just getting by.”

Right now Rail America, the company that wants to build the terminal, is doing research on the site but hasn’t entered any kind of formal agreement or permitting process. If they decide to move forward with the project they would need approval from the port to lease the land, and then they’d have to complete an Environmental Impact Statement.

It’s too soon to say whether or not coal is in this port’s future, but right now, jobs and revenue are at the center of the conversation here.

Copyright Northwest News Network 2012