Some left out in debate on N.W. coal exports, critics say

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PASCO — While proposals to turn green-leaning Washington state into a major exporter of coal to China have caused an uproar in coastal communities, the heated debate is largely absent from other places along the industry's expected trade route to Asia.

The state and federal agencies that are conducting an environmental review of five proposed coal-export terminals in the region aren't planning to give residents of one of Washington state's major population centers a chance to comment on the project publicly, even as such meetings take place in similar-sized or smaller communities elsewhere.

As a result, officials and residents in south-central Washington aren't exactly sure what they stand to gain or lose.

In the Tri-Cities, a cluster of towns along the Columbia River with a combined population of 190,000, the few local officials who knew about the projects said they weren't concerned.

"We've just kind of learned to live with the train delays," said Mike Harris, a deputy fire chief in Benton County, which includes Kennewick, the largest of the three cities.

But the Yakama Nation, which has lands in south-central Washington where residents are three hours from any of the scheduled meetings, would like more information on what the projects might mean for tribal communities.

"Having a closer meeting would definitely give people an opportunity to wrap their arms around what's being proposed," said Emily Washines, a spokeswoman for the tribe.

U.S. coal operators, facing declining domestic demand, want to build five export terminals in the Northwest to ship coal to China and other global markets where demand is stronger. Supporters, including business and labor groups, say jobs and the economy are at stake and urge quick approval.

But these proposals face strong resistance from environmental groups and Indian tribes that say a tidal wave of coal shipments will bring more noise and pollution and will disturb tribal fishing grounds and cultural sites. They want the review to include the impacts on communities from the mines to the ports, especially whether the trains will worsen air and water quality and blanket the region with coal dust or block first responders from reaching emergencies.

In July, a coal train derailed in Mesa, a rural village north of the Tri-Cities. No one was injured, and the spilled coal was cleaned up quickly, but the incident became a rallying cry for opponents of the project as an example of what could go wrong.

"Along the Columbia River, it's cliff, highway, railroad, then river," Paul Lumley, the executive director of the Portland-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said in September. "Our communities are wedged between the railroad and the river. We've got nowhere to escape."

Train traffic and environmental hazards are familiar in the Tri-Cities. Pasco, just across the river from Kennewick, is a regional hub on BNSF, a Fort Worth, Texas, rail company with lines across the Western United States. Richland, the smallest of the three cities, is near the Hanford site, which produced plutonium for the atom bombs that ended World War II and later required an extensive cleanup of nuclear waste.

The railroad employs about 300 people in the area, and many local industries depend on it to ship their products.

BNSF already transports some coal through the Tri-Cities, and the volume might increase substantially if the largest of the five terminals is built.