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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.
That process will probably take at least until March. Agency representatives acknowledged Thursday that they won't be the final decision-makers. "This won't be done at the staff level," commented the Corps of Engineers' Randel Perry. Ecology's Jeannie Summerhays has consulted with her boss and she, in turn, expects to talk to the new governor, Jay Inslee. At Whatcom County, Tyler Schroeder talks with County Executive Jack Louws.
Politics will ultimately enter the decision. Inslee is a Democrat who made a reputation as a climate-change hawk, but he has been largely silent on coal exports. The Everett Herald, in an editorial, called on him to take leadership against the coal shipments, but in an environmental-policy article Inslee wrote for Publicola the topic was notably absent. In like manner, re-elected President Barack Obama talks climate change but has not engaged coal directly. Whether the White House would intervene with the Corps of Engineers on something like scoping for an environmental review is problematic, although its Council on Environmental Quality is known to be monitoring the case. Both Inslee and Obama picked up dollars and votes from environmentalists.
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