Hearing brings coal spotlight to Vancouver

150 people will be selected by drawing to deliver testimony

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter




• What: Vancouver hearing on proposed coal export facility.

• When: 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday.

• Where: Clark College's Gaiser Hall, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way.

• The project: Gateway Pacific Terminal, near Bellingham, one of five coal facilities on the table in Washington and Oregon.

• Can't make it? Comments can also be sent to the lead agencies at http://eisgatewaypacificwa.gov, which also has additional information.

photoJasper deHoog of Burlington gives a thumbs-up to a speaker supporting construction of a Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would export coal to Asia, at a meeting Nov. 29, 2012, in Ferndale.


Few issues this year have generated more interest and debate in the Northwest than coal exports. Public meetings on the subject have drawn bigger crowds than some local sporting events.

This week, Vancouver gets its turn in the spotlight.

A Wednesday hearing at Clark College will invite residents to weigh in on one of the proposed coal projects in Washington. And for the first time, face time at the microphone will be determined by luck of the draw. That's because a first-come, first-served model used at other meetings prompted people to show up hours early to get a coveted speaking slot (or, reportedly, pay stand-ins to wait in line for them).

The meeting will focus on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham, one of five coal export facilities now proposed in Washington and Oregon. Among other commodities, the facility would handle coal that's shipped through the Northwest mostly by rail, on its way to energy-hungry markets in Asia.

One of the Northwest's key rail arterials is the BNSF Railway track that passes through the Columbia River Gorge and Vancouver.

The Washington State Department of Ecology, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County are jointly gathering public comment on the Gateway Pacific project as they prepare an environmental impact statement. Previous meetings have attracted huge crowds as well-organized advocates on both sides of the debate rally their troops.

Room for 800 people

Vancouver is the sixth such hearing. Three of the previous five topped 1,000 attendees, according to the ecology department. Even the smallest meeting, in Friday Harbor, packed in 450 people.

On Wednesday, Clark College's Gaiser Hall will host two concurrent sessions for oral comment. Hourly random drawings during the meeting will determine who gets the 150 two-minute available speaking slots. People will be turned away after the building reaches its capacity of 800, according to the ecology department.

The arguments

Opponents of coal export facilities say the environmental cost of shipping and burning more coal is simply too great. They also argue that increased traffic from coal trains could cause logistical problems for the cities along those rail lines.

Supporters point to the economic benefit of bringing coal export facilities -- and the jobs that would come with them -- to the Northwest. If Washington and Oregon don't seize the opportunity, they say, someone else will.

Though Wednesday will bring a high-profile public hearing to Vancouver for the first time, the debate over coal has already resonated locally. The pro-coal Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports and the anti-coal Sierra Club are among the loudest voices already calling on people to turn out in droves. Both advocacy groups are also staging their own media events at Clark College before the hearing.

The three-hour meeting begins at 4 p.m. in Gaiser Hall, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.