Hundreds pack statewide hearings on coal exports

Opponents are worried about coal dust, train traffic, damage to the environment

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Supporters and opponents of coal exports are already gearing up for a public hearing set for Wednesday in Vancouver.

The meeting will focus on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham, one of five coal export facilities currently on the table in Washington and Oregon. Attendees will learn about the review process and submit comments. Advocates on both sides of the debate have begun rallying support ahead of the meeting.

The hearing is scheduled to last from 4 to 7 p.m. at Clark College’s Gaiser Hall, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way.

SPOKANE — Environmentalists and business interests have been competing to pack public hearings on a proposed coal export terminal near Ferndale, eager to build up a record of comments for or against.

Many public meetings are lucky to get a handful of interested people to show up. But hundreds have attended the meetings at Ferndale, Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Spokane on the Gateway Pacific Project at Cherry Point.

A smaller crowd was understandable at the Friday Harbor hearing on San Juan Island, but another big crowd is likely next Wednesday in Vancouver. And the turnout for the Dec. 13 hearing in Seattle is expected to be so large it was moved to the state convention center.

SSA Marine of Seattle hopes to build the $600 million terminal. It's the largest of five proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to power plants in Asia.

The arguments were familiar from about 800 people at Tuesday's hearing at the Spokane County Fairgrounds. Opponents are concerned about train traffic, coal dust and damage to the environment, including climate change. Supporters in unions and business groups say the terminal and coal exports will boost the economy.

A trade organization in favor of coal shipments hired about 30 temporary workers to stand in line from 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. to hold speaking spots for its representatives.

Some environmentalists also showed up early to ensure that people traveling from near the coal fields would have a chance to speak.

"My land is beautiful. The river is clean," said Alaina Buffalo Spirit, a member of the North Cheyenne Tribe living near Colstrip, Mont. "I would like to see it stay that way."

Spokane City Councilman Ben Stuckart warned about increasing coal train shipments through Spokane and north Idaho.

"We are the choke point for the rail traffic that will come through," he said.

Business representatives said trade is responsible for 1 in 3 Washington jobs.

"We believe in exporting," said Matt McCoy, of the International Trade Alliance in Spokane.

The Northwest Alliance for Jobs and Exports, an industry and union-backed group, hired temporary workers who stood in line to hold speaking spots.

"We are not ashamed of that in any way," said spokeswoman Lauri Hennessey. Testimony is allocated on a first-come basis.

A small number of environmentalists had already grabbed the first places in line, witnesses said.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils earlier this year estimated that an additional 28 coal trains a day would go through Spokane by 2017. The number of trains could rise to 63 a day based on proposals for other port facilities in the Northwest.

BNSF estimated eight to 16 trains are possible each day through Spokane.

The meetings are convened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington State Department of Ecology and the Whatcom County Council to identify issues for study. The public comment period is open through Jan. 21, and then an environmental impact statement will be drafted.