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Longview coal hearing draws foes, backers

Four more are scheduled on $643 million project, including 1 in Vancouver

The Columbian
Published: September 17, 2013, 5:00pm

About 2,000 people jammed into the Cowlitz Expo Center on Tuesday evening, capping six hours of hearings on a proposed Longview coal terminal in which both sides rallied vigorously but without the incivility law enforcement officials had feared.

With opponents dressed in red and supporters donning blue, the Expo Center resembled a mixed-party political convention, with the reds, many bused in from outside the area, having a decided majority.

Outside, a sign on a 12-foot-tall inflatable globe declared “Coal is poison,” and a majority of people shared those sentiments when they urged state, federal and Cowlitz County regulators to conduct a broad environmental review of a $643 million Millennium Bulk Terminals proposal to export 44 million tons of coal annually at the old Reynolds Metals site.

“How much more does my neighborhood have to suffer? … Justice, not expedience, needs to be the guiding light in this process,” said Dawn Hansen, a nurse who lives in the Highlands neighborhood, located about a mile from the site.

Robert Stewart, Millennium’s general manager, testified that “the old Reynolds site is a premium site for bulk exporting commodities.”

Most of the speakers, drawn by lottery, were from the Cowlitz County area, because participants on both sides handed their tickets to pre-determined speakers in an apparent effort to boost local voices. Four buses hauled environmental supporters in from out of town for the evening meeting.

Opponent Dawson Dunning, whose family owns a ranch in Eastern Montana near a proposed coal mine, said he traveled to Longview because he’s worried the terminal will create demand that will hurt his business.

“Longview is connected to Montana ranches because the coal that comes from our backyard ends up on your doorstep. Longview is the most important town in Montana today,” Dunning said.

Cowlitz County officials said the Expo Center has a capacity of 1,800. Most seats were full, and people also milled around the hallways.

About 150 speakers testified at the hearing. Opponents worried about the potential damage from coal dust and the traffic gridlock the terminal could create in Longview with 16 train trips — eight round-trips– heading through town daily. Millennium employees and supporters argued that they can handle coal safely and cleanly while creating 135 permanent jobs and 2,000 construction jobs.

“Our site is very clean, and we as employees keep it that way,” Millennium employee Dixie Dailey said.

Labor unions have been among Millennium’s biggest supporters, but Tuesday’s hearing exposed a few cracks in union solidarity. Noting they don’t speak for the union, two Vancouver-area longshoremen said they’re worried about long-term environmental effects of the terminal.

“I like to clam dig. I like to fish. I like to take my kids in the environment,” said Cager Clabaugh, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Vancouver-based Local 4.

Jake Whiteside, president of the Longview-based ILWU Local 21, said the majority of his local membership favors the terminal, but there still are divisions. He added that he believes Millennium is a good fit, and the company has made a good effort to work with unions.

“Longview is set up like (city founder) R.A. Long set it up — for industry. Millennium is doing good in this community because they’re cleaning up a site that’s been tainted for a long time,” Whiteside said, speaking of the contamination left behind when Reynolds closed down in 2001.

Despite the hype that preceded the hearing and the heated national debate over the issue, no media outlets from outside the greater Portland area covered the session.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held the first hearing session from 1 to 4 p.m., which was much more sparsely attended. Cowlitz County and the state Department of Ecology conducted the second go-round in the evening, from 5 to 8 p.m.

In the hour between the two hearings, Millennium and opponents held dueling, back-to-back rallies. Several hundred anticoal protesters cheered and unfurled banners despite a downpour that soaked their clothes through.

Dan Carpitha of Enumclaw brought a flute to play a Native American prayer song before both the rally and the second round of hearings. His mother’s tribe is the same as Sacajawea’s, he noted, and he’s opposed to the coal terminal, saying he’s concerned about generations to come.

The promised coal jobs, he said, remind him of “a bartender who continues to serve an obviously intoxicated customer because he needs the money.”

Wearing a red anti-coal shirt and purple hat, Doris Disbrow stood on a sidewalk waving at cars, cheering when she got a thumbs up and brushing off people who yelled that they support coal.

“I love Longview and I’ve been involved in historic preservation, so I know the importance of industry. … I didn’t put an (anticoal) sign in my yard until two weeks ago because I was still deciding. If it was 2,000 jobs, I’d be all for it, but not for 130. … I’m not against development and jobs, but I don’t want coal jobs,” she said.

Inside the floral building on the Cowlitz County Fairgrounds, about 200 Millennium supporters gathered behind a banner highlighting Cowlitz County’s high unemployment rates.

“This is exactly the type of private investment we need in our community,” said Longview City Councilman Mike Wallin.

Near the main entrance to the fairgrounds, Kelso’s Jeff Childers, a Millennium employee, handed out blue stickers and talked to visitors. Coal opponents, he said, don’t really understand how often coal is used in society. Water treatment plants use coal filtration, as do respirators, he said.

“This is the most family-oriented company I’ve worked for,” he said. “I see this as a good thing.”

The purpose of the “scoping” hearings was to gather public suggestions for what issues should evaluated in the environmental impact studies of the terminal proposal. Four others will be held statewide over the next several weeks,including one in Vancouver.

Officers from three police agencies and two fire agencies were stationed around the fairgrounds and Expo Center. No disruptions were reported. Supporters waved signs and gave a thumbs up to support speakers but did not applaud, at the request of moderators.

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Police and firefighters questioned the man who inflated the giant globe, Eric Ross of Vashon Island, because of concerns that a similar prop had exploded during another anti-coal rally in the Puget Sound area last year.

Daily News reporter Tony Lystra contributed to this story.