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These unique comments were quickly followed by a host of marine scientists with very specific subjects that should be studied, and ship and ferry officers with warnings about “constrained waters with many hazards” in the shipping channels of Haro and Rosario straits, as described by retired ferry captain Ken Burtness of Lopez Island. “We put too much in and we take too much out,” said retired marine biologist M. Patricia Morse; she listed a host of marine species that would be devastated by coal spill on the floor of Haro Strait. “Almost all San Juan jobs are ocean-related,” she reminded officials.
Native American leaders testified at Bellingham and Friday Harbor. Lummi Nation spokesman Jay Julius led off the Bellingham testimony. "Science is respected by our nation, but we have our own knowledge and teaching," Julius said. "Lummi Nation says no . . . I am personally a fisherman as my great-great-great-grandparents were fishermen ... long before the arrival of science." Julius told officials from the Corps, Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Ecology, the three co-lead agencies on the environmental review, "I would like to encourage a spiritual or soul study to be done ... to study the impacts that this will have on our people,"
At Mount Vernon, which is bisected by BNSF tracks, officials on Nov. 5 expected fewer than 500 at McIntyre Hall; nearly 1,000 showed up, overflowing the theater.
As the three meetings progressed, so did the focus of speakers. In Bellingham, speakers often appeared to be letting off steam from the long buildup to the meetings; their passion was followed by somewhat generic opposition. But Friday Harbor zeroed in on marine issues and testimony was pointed and specific as to what must be studied. Mount Vernon brought a broader range of topics but speakers were very focused and concise, whether they were concerned about trains (most were) or impacts on farm and fishing occupations and the reviving downtowns of Mount Vernon and Stanwood. Several homeowners told vivid accounts of the impact of long and heavy coal trains already running adjacent to their homes in limited numbers to a British Columbia export facility.
The Mount Vernon testimony also opened up the greater issue of regional livability, central to much concern but difficult to scientifically study. Many speakers called for a regional study that would include livability and impacts on small towns along the rail route. For these towns, said Mount Vernon physician Jerry Eisner, “there’s no positives; there won’t be any jobs here. This is a thousand-mile, 24-hour-a-day slap in the face. In your hands the Northwest lies. Are you going to participate in the destruction of the last corner where there are rivers, salmon?"
The task (among many) for officials of the three agencies will be how to deal with the concerns of people like Eisner in a manner acceptable to the scientific and technical boundaries of an environmental assessment process.
Unlike the typical public hearing, the scoping sessions were almost devoid of elected officials: Three county council members from San Juan County and a port commissioner spoke in Friday Harbor, but no public official spoke in Bellingham and only one in Mount Vernon. That was not accidental; although everyone was encouraged to offer views, agency officials were clearly looking for citizen testimony.
They got what they wanted, and appeared pleased with the outcome. We discussed the process with Perry of the Corps, Tyler Schroeder of Whatcom County and Jeannie Summerhays, who partnered with Alice Kelly for Ecology. It was Summerhays who suggested “unprecedented” to describe this scoping exercise, and Perry and Schroeder agreed. It is without precedent, they noted, to hold seven scoping sessions in such a wide area — from Spokane to Seattle and from Vancouver to Friday Harboy — and the turnout is totally unprecedented. A big public meeting for Ecology, Summerhays noted, would be in the hundreds. The first three meetings drew about 3,500 people.
The format for the meetings — sponsors insist they are not “hearings” that typically address elected officials — offers three ways people can express views: the traditional large-group setting with a microphone for two-minute comments, tables where individual comments may be given to an agency representative, and tables where people may write comments. Large display boards with information circle one room, with agency representatives to answer questions — at all thee hearings there were plenty of questions.
Part of the crowd in Bellingham
Photo by Floyd McKay
Officials counted 2,000 people in two Bellingham auditoriums, and after four hours 400 people had their say in verbal or written comments. At the three-hour session in Friday Harbor, about 500 people came and 280 made verbal or written comments. In Mount Vernon, nearly 1,000 attended and 300 entered verbal or written comments.
Most participants seemed to prefer the large-audience format; people did utilize the one-on-one and written opportunities, but clearly it was the chance to present and to hear public testimony that drew most of the crowd and kept it engaged for up to four hours.
Testimony was overwhelmingly against the terminal or, at the minimum, calling for environmental review of a host of consequences. Railroad traffic and marine issues appeared to be on the minds of most of the speakers. Ecology is trying to keep up with the flood of comments and is posting them on its website; as of early last week, more than 2,100 comments had been posted; you can read them here.
At times the testimony was emotional: an elderly Bellingham woman broke down in tears as she related coming to the meeting to support the terminal because her grandson needs a job, but after listening to speakers she changed course, fearing damage to the community. Another woman turned on a tape recording of a coal train passing near her house. A Lummi Nation woman asked for the audience to keep a minute’s silence for “all we are killing.” A Ferndale man uncorked a bottle and pulled out a “note from an Orca.”
Terminal supporters, although vastly outnumbered, were represented by several young men who waved signs proclaiming “Power Past Fear-Mongering: Support Progress,” a play on words of the “Power Past Coal” signs waved by their opponents. Dialogue was respectful on all sides and the terminal-support group engaged some of their opponents in discussion on the sidelines. Three Bellingham union members spoke in Mount Vernon for jobs for their members.
There’s a lot of money on the table. SSA is the nation’s largest terminal operator and it’s 49 percent owned by a Goldman Sachs unit, Peabody Coal is the largest coal operator in the nation and is already committed to half of GPT’s capacity, and BNSF is a leader in a nationwide industry where 40 percent of the cargo is coal. Construction and longshore unions hope to pick up thousands of permanent or temporary jobs, and several taxing jurisdictions are looking for thousands in payments if the terminal is built.
A coalition of deep-pocket industries reportedly spent $866,000 in September alone on television spots in Oregon and Washington. Lauri Hennessey, who manages the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports account at the Edelman public-relations agency, declined to comment on how much is being spent in order to counter opposition that she termed “extreme” and not representative of how most people view the coal terminals. “We would just say that the ads feature real workers and families who care about these projects and who want them to happen – and we have not been short on volunteers,” she added.
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