They sat patiently and listened, sometimes writing notes to themselves, never talking back as several hundred speakers and audiences totaling over 8,000 people railed about railroads, jabbered about jobs, castigated coal, fretted about fish and calculated climate-change effects on future generations of Washingtonians.
After seven "scoping meetings" for the largest of five coal-export terminals proposed in the Northwest closed Thursday night in Seattle, the agency representatives who sat through 24 hours of verbal testimony could only look forward to reading several thousand more online comments to be filed before the Jan. 21 conclusion of the scoping process. The heart of their decision is whether the environmental review for a proposed coal-export facility at Ferndale, north of Bellingham, should look broadly at the environmental issues for the Northwest around exports to China, as opponents want, or focus on the single facility.
They were weary but unbowed Thursday as a red-shirted crowd of coalport opponents picked up their Power Past Coal signs and filed out of the Washington Convention Center in Seattle, some to participate in a noisy informal rally on the street outside.
There's a lot of youth in the anti-coal movement, and energy in their comments having a lot to do about what kind of a future they want to grow into, but it was the gray heads in most of the seven scoping meetings that put the meat on the table with data based on science ranging from marine biology to air quality and climate change.
The mix kept the meetings interesting and the assault of data made it harder for supporters of the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed at Cherry Point north of Bellingham to offer much beyond a Jobs, Jobs, Jobs mantra. Most of the supporters were from longshore, construction and rail unions that stand to gain the hundreds (or thousands, terminal developers claim) that go with the $664 million project.
Terminal supporters had an uphill battle from the start by the very nature of the scoping meetings; the meetings were called to allow citizens to alert regulating agencies to issues they want studied in a lengthy environmental review process. That purpose puts the ball in the opponents' court and calls forth all the negatives of the proposal. The best option for supporters is to try to promote economic impacts — jobs and taxes, mostly benefitting the northwest part of Whatcom County — and try to assure regulators the terminal will be up to snuff in the latest technology. Backers wore green T-shirts, but except in Ferndale, major beneficiary of the terminal, they were largely lost in the Red Sea of their foes.
By the time the meetings concluded, the actual project — an SSA Marine development on an industrial site that already holds two oil refineries and an aluminum plant and has been zoned industrial for decades — was almost submerged by larger issues that it brings to the table, because its major commodity will be coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin. Coal is in bad odor these days and the commodity and its thousand-mile rail transport have come to dominate the debate.
Perhaps the only participants narrowly focused on the site itself are young and articulate members of the Lummi Nation, whose ancestors lived, fished and hunted at Cherry Point. Some are buried there, and SSA Marine touched a hot wire when company representatives carried out some unauthorized clearing on the site in an area the Lummis claim holds the bones of their forebears. The prospect of a burial site "under a coal conveyor belt," in the scornful words of Lummi Jay Julius, has been only one spark for younger tribal members, who are increasingly replacing tribal elders at these public meetings.
They've been joined at other hearings by spokespersons for other tribes. The young people are angry and they are effective, a developer's worst nightmare because of federal laws and regulations protecting historic and cultural sites. The Lummis opened their campaign shortly before the scoping process began, and SSA Marine quickly countered that it was sensitive to the cultural aspects of Cherry Point; the Lummis were not mollified.
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