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It wasn't the biggest crowd to talk coal in recent weeks, but about 650 people were good enough to fill two venues during a Vancouver public hearing at Clark College on Wednesday.
Advocates turned out in droves to weigh in on one of several proposed export terminals that could boost the amount of coal being shipped through the Northwest. About 400 people packed a Gaiser Hall auditorium for the three-hour hearing, with another 250 filling nearby Foster Auditorium at the same time.
The meeting centered around the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham, one of five coal export facilities now on the table in Washington and Oregon. Among other commodities, the facility would handle coal that's brought in 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 Washougal, Camas and Vancouver.
Speakers, chosen by random drawings, mostly echoed familiar arguments. Opponents decried the environmental harm of shipping and burning coal, plus the increased trains it would take to move it. Supporters touted the economic benefits of the Gateway Pacific facility, calling it an opportunity for a region that needs jobs badly.
But opponents of coal exports, many clad in red shirts, appeared to far outnumber those who want the Cherry Point facility to move forward.
"It's going to send the wrong message about our greater region," said Hillsboro, Ore., resident Nick Engelfried, a volunteer with the anti-coal Sierra Club.
Other advocates cited air pollution and rail congestion as their chief concerns. Vancouver resident Toni Montgomery said living near a railroad track has given her an up-close view of another worry cited by some opponents: coal dust.
"Have you experienced what coal dust can do to property? I have," Montgomery said. "It's a dangerous mess."
The Washington State Department of Ecology, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County are gathering public comment as they prepare an environmental impact statement on the Gateway Pacific project. They've found huge crowds just about everywhere -- at five previous meetings, three drew at least 1,000 people, according to the ecology department.
Attendees Wednesday mostly followed the rules of decorum laid out at the start of the meeting. No applause or booing. Wave your hands (or signs) when you like what you're hearing. Thumbs down when you don't.
Even before the hearing began, it was clear what the topic of the day was. Dozens of signs both for and against the project lined Fort Vancouver Way outside the college. Gateway Pacific supporters, clad in green shirts, gathered under tents in front of Gaiser Hall.
Whatcom County resident Darren Williams has attended previous Gateway Pacific meetings, in support of the project. He said he's frustrated by opponents turning what should be a conversation about a specific facility into a "philosophical debate" about coal and the environment. Gateway Pacific would also process grain, among many other materials besides coal, he said.
"The terminal itself is being lost in the debate," Williams said. "I think there's a lot of facts being lost in the process."
Locomotive engineer John Lawson, of Kennewick, agreed.
"My biggest concern has been the impact on the economy," Lawson said, adding such projects "provide a tax boost to our state, who in turn provides services to the rest of the state."
Bob Watters, a senior vice president with project developer SSA Marine, said Clark County could also benefit directly from new jobs as a result of increased rail activity in the area.
Any final decision on Gateway Pacific or any of the other proposed export facilities is likely a long way off. The formal comment period will continue into early next year, and the completion of a draft EIS could take another year to prepare, according to the ecology department. Then comes more review, more comment, and a final EIS.
A seventh public hearing is set for Thursday night in Seattle at the Washington State Convention Center. That gathering could draw the biggest crowd yet -- organizers say that space holds a capacity of 3,500.