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.
Native Americans joined early opponents from Bellingham in what had started out as a controlled exercise in which SSA Marine lined up local political leaders, a Chamber of Commerce and labor unions in Northwest Washington in 2010 to support construction — and jobs — at Ferndale. Opposition began to build in early 2011 when coal was announced as the primary client for a "bulk commodity terminal." Opponents started to organize around the idea of 18 coal trains a day (arriving and leaving the terminal), running alongside some of Bellingham's best real estate and a future downtown waterfront development.
The issue went regional when a coalition of environmental and sustainability groups, most notably the Sierra Club and Climate Solutions, joined with groups of physicians, San Juan Islands protectors of the Salish Sea and people along the railroad tracks to form Power Past Coal, the folks in the red T-shirts at the meetings. They held scoping-preparation sessions and doubtless generated a large share of the 9,000 or so written or online comments delivered to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology and Whatcom County, co-lead agencies for environmental review.
SSA Marine countered by blanketing Whatcom County with a staff of young men ringing doorbells and distributing literature; they in turn generated the pro-terminal crowd at a Ferndale hearing, where they outnumbered opponents. Proponents also reached deeply into the deep pockets of corporate interests that stand to do quite well by selling coal to China: Goldman Sachs, part owner of SSA Marine; Peabody Coal, the nation's largest; and BNSF Railway, which has a monopoly on the transport. An advertising and public-relations effort called Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports has spent heavily on television commercials and other advertising in the region, pushing the jobs the terminal will attract. BNSF continues to advertise prominently on public television with appealing images of freight trains.
The coal debate has been good business for Seattle advertising and public relations firms, as documented by Sightline's Eric de Place, who cites several of the major firms in Seattle — some with strong "green" connections — as profiting from the tussle. "By taking money from Big Coal, these firms — many of which have carefully groomed reputations for sustainability and public-interest work — have themselves become a part of the coal industry," de Place comments.
We didn't see the CEOs of the corporate partners at the meetings — not even Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns BNSF. Instead, they relied on labor representatives to make the case for new jobs to boost the economy. The case resonated in Ferndale, where the school district stands to gain about $1.4 million a year from the project and where workers at the terminal would be expected to spend paychecks. Only a few miles to the south, however, the argument played less well in Bellingham, which gets no money for its schools from Cherry Point and has tried to push green jobs and tourism. Union leaders tried valiantly in other forums, but had little help from walk-on speakers; they rest their case with the agency folk, who promise to review all comments before setting a scoping parameter.
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