VANCOUVER — Coal industry opponents flooded a Wednesday hearing to rail against a proposed export terminal near Bellingham, offering a preview of what developers of a proposed Longview dock may face next spring.
About 700 people crammed into two hearing rooms at Clark College, waiting for their turn to testify on the $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal planned for Cherry Point in Whatcom County. The hearing was conducted jointly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County officials.
The hearing was the sixth of seven held across the state; all the meetings have attracted hundreds. Developer SSA Marine hopes to haul coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana for export to Asia. Because the mile-long unit trains would run through dozens of communities to the coast, regulators are holding the hearings statewide. If approved, 18 trains would travel daily through Vancouver and Cowlitz County to Gateway.
“The rail system is close to capacity now. What will happen to folks who need to cross the tracks to the grocery store? More importantly, what will happen to folks who are waiting for the train for medical care?” said Gayle Kiser of Longview, president of Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, an anti-coal group.
Regulators say the goal of these scoping hearings is to determine what factors must be considered in the environmental impact statement for the Gateway project. Once the EIS is complete, the agencies will hold a second series of hearings for the public to comment on it.
Officials for Millennium Bulk Terminals, which is seeking to build a $643 million coal terminal at the former Reynolds Metals Co. site west of Longview, sat in the audience in support of their industry but didn’t speak. Corps officials said they expect to start the public hearing process for Millennium in February or March. The many hurdles the projects face mean that construction is years out. Millennium hopes to have the Longview terminal built by the end of the decade.
Coal backers said they’ve seen a great deal of “theater” at these hearings, but said they expect the hearings on Millennium to continue to run smoothly.
“People are having plenty of conversations about the issue, but they don’t have any issues with the process,” said Laurie Hennessey, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a coalition of labor and business who support the coal terminals.
To speed up the three-hour hearing, the moderators told the audience to refrain from applause or boos and instead wave their hands or signs in support. Some speakers also received a silent chorus of thumbs-down signals.
Coal dock opponents wore red shirts that read “Beyond Coal Exports,” and they comprised roughly three-quarters of the attendees. Supporters, consisting mostly of labor unions, donned green shirts stating “Get to Work.” Of the approximately 150 speakers in two rooms at Clark College, the overwhelming majority were in opposition.
Opponents said they primarily worry about rail congestion through local communities and the health risks of coal dust from passing trains, and they questioned whether coal jobs are worth the cost.
“Pollution is not the solution. It’s not the solution to joblessness. It’s not the solution to growing the economy,” Mary Lyons of Longview said.
Supporters said regulators should conduct a thorough environmental review of the proposed terminals, but the promise of hundreds of high-paying jobs is too great to ignore.
Dave Myers, executive secretary of the Washington Building and Trades Council and a former Kelso resident, said Gateway and other coal companies will use the best technology available to cover coal during transport and spray it down with water and surfactants to prevent dust.
“We can be smart and responsible in moving coal,” Myers said.