Coal port testimony: The public speaks

Green Acre Radio talks with the people attending public meetings about proposed facilities to export coal to China. The vast majority are opposed.
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Supporters hoist anti-coal signs for a speaker at Friday Harbor.

Green Acre Radio talks with the people attending public meetings about proposed facilities to export coal to China. The vast majority are opposed.

Editor's note: In two reports originally broadcast on KBCS, Martha Baskin captured audio shapshots of the public views presented in Bellingham and Friday Harbor on proposals for a coal port at Cherry Point, near Bellingham. A Seattle hearing will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at the Washington State Convention Center's Ballroom 6F. First, here's her first report from Bellingham and the script for it. Her second report  lower down the page. includes interviews with those who’ve been challenging Corp decisions for the last decade and a response  from the Army Corp of Engineers.

A proposal to build North America’s largest coal terminal in Bellingham to ship coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin through Washington to Asia, drew thousands at the first formal public meeting. The meeting and subsequent ones around the state are the first phase in an environmental review process where key agencies will decide what factors to consider as they determine whether to approve or deny permits for the terminal. 

Click on the player above or here to listen to the audio version of this story.

Proposals to ship more than 150 million tons of coal through Washington and Oregon have been underway for the last year. Seattle-based SSA Marine proposes to build North America’s largest coal export terminal in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve near Bellingham. Recently, at a meeting in Bellingham, the public was given the first formal opportunity to weigh in on the proposal. The Army Corp of Engineers, Department of Ecology and Whatcom County are conducting hearings to determine what impacts to include in an Environmental Impact Statement. 

First, the voices at a rally held outside the hearing to stop coal exports. Drumming from the Lummi Tribe’s Justin Finkbonner welcomed the crowd. “The message we’re taking today is very important.” Walter Young is a commercial fisherman, father and grandfather. “I don’t have anything prepared, all I have is what’s in my heart and what’s in my heart is I care about our Mother Earth. I care that corporations want to come in and rape and plunder and go away and leave us holding the bag.” In his testimony before the Army Corp of Engineers and Department of Ecology, Young recalled when an aluminum smelter facility, Intalco, was built and ships from all over the world began docking in Bellingham. They discharged hundreds of gallons of bilge a day. “And all these foreign organisms that do not belong in our environment got into our water. First victim was the herring run. This was the largest herring run in the world.” The herring has never recovered, says Young, nor the salmon which rely on herring as their main source of food. “We dropped the ball and did not make them conform to EPA regulations and we’re paying the price for it.” 

Jay Julius, a full-time fisherman with the Lummi Tribe also came to testify against the proposed coal terminal. He began fishing as a child with his grandfather. “Our ability to fish has been narrowed to a small portion of what used to be large for us — all the way to the Pacific Ocean. And this would take away a great portion of our fishing not only halibut and salmon but also our ability to bring back documented reef netting sites.” Julius is concerned about the size of the coal tankers which can be as long as thousand feet or triple the size of a ferry. “These will be monstrous tankers, 465 a year, more than one a day. So if I’m out there outside Cherry Point where I fish, and I’m currently fishing today, as we speak, and it’s foggy, I can’t get out of the way nor can they stop and the impacts could be devastating to our people; not only our people but the state fisherman. If this goes through it is rape of the Point Eliot Treaty of 1855. We have experienced molestation of the treaty in the past, for the last 157 years. This would be dagger in us. It would be ripping our heart out.”

Not all who came to testify in Bellingham were against exporting coal. Laura Hennessy is a spokesperson with the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, whose members include teamsters, locomotive engineers, the coal industry and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. “We want the shipping terminals to be built not just here but Longview, Grays Harbor, Port of Morrow, Oregon. We feel it’s possible to build the terminals in a way that’s environmentally responsible. We want the state and federal regulators to have a chance to do their job. We want them to do an EIS and mitigate any concerns that come up.” Hennessy was asked about coal and climate change, a common concern heard at the hearing. “That question comes up from time to time and what I usually tell people is that there are many, many people in Asia who need access to power. Asia is actually leading the way in trying to find new ways to retrofit their plants so they use coal in a different way. Clean technology is developing every year. It is a natural resource that we have in plentiful supply here in the Northwest, in the Powder River Basin. It’s a good coal that we feel we can export. I don’t believe this process should be about whether coal is good or not good. It is a power source people use around the world. We think we need to address how we’re going to ship it, how traffic is going to be impacted and how people’s health in the Northwest is going to be impacted.”

Organizers opposed to building regional coal export terminals estimated 95 percent of the crowd were against the proposal. But signs displayed inside the hearing and surrounding neighborhood were both pro, “Citizens for a Working Whatcom County” and against, “Power Past Coal, We Can Do Better”. For more information go to and

In the second part below we include additional public testimony from hearings held in the San Juan Islands and Bellingham on Peabody Coal’s proposal to build North America’s largest coal export terminal at Cherry Point, Bellingham.  We hear from a concerned mother, tribal member, a marine consultant who filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps, and a San Juan Island resident concerned about the impact of more supertankers on  tourism and oil spills.


Click on the player above or here to listen to the audio version of this story.

Julie Trimingham’s family has lived in Bellingham, the site of a proposal to build North America’s largest coal export terminal, for generations. During public testimony she said she stands for the right to raise her child in a clean and healthy place. And if she’s to act morally, she must speak for mothers everywhere coal is burned or transported. “How will the coal that we’re exporting to China exacerbate climate change and ocean acidification?” Diesel particulate matter from transporting coal is a serious concern. ”It’s known to cause cancers, heart disease and asthma.” Coal combustion is also a worry. “We all breathe the same air. What burns in Asia doesn’t necessarily stay in Asia. Mercury and other toxins, cross the Pacific Ocean and affect our air, our water.”

At public meetings which began last month and continue into December, issues were raised about congested rail and vessel traffic, public health, tourism and fisheries. Lummi Tribe member Justin Finkbonner, says when supertankers return from China after offloading coal, they enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca and cross near Gooseberry Point where the tribe fishes. “They empty all that water, bring all those pollutants from China, the harbors, where the environmental regulatory standards are way less stringent than ours and those polluted waters are throwing off the balance of the ecosystem here, of the herring beds, and that’s why they can’t survive today.”

State and federal agencies need to take into account the impact of existing industry at the site of the proposed new Gateway Pacific Terminal, says Fred Felleman a consultant with Friends of the Earth. BP, the state’s largest refinery, Intalco, the aluminum smelter and Conoco Phillips already generate heavy traffic, some 700 tankers a year. “They all have impacts on the sediment and the drifts and the light available to grow eel grass and spawn herring.” Discharges from the end of docks are a chronic oil spill, says Felleman.

Twelve years ago the Army Corp permitted BP to build a new tanker dock without an environmental review. The permit was contingent on BP placing oil-spill booms around their tankers. ”What we have is a litany of broken promises to evaluate the impacts of these facilities,” Felleman says. After building the new dock, BP removed the mooring buoys to position the oil-spill booms, says Felleman. He and others filed a lawsuit. “Only in the past month do they have the capacity they promised the Corp they were going to have over a decade ago.”  

When the Army Corp of Engineers Randall Perry was asked if the lawsuit over BP’s removal of oil-spill booms on tankers would be taken into consideration with current proposals to build export terminals for coal, he said, “The lawsuit itself probably not. The increase in tanker traffic maybe.” Baseline studies and cumulative impacts for the EIS or environmental impact statement won’t be conducted until after public testimony is over in December. “We’re just collecting comments on what should be in the EIS, what information we need to look at. We haven’t even begun any analysis or started down that path yet.”

Ask Stephanie Buffum with Friends of the San Juans and she’ll say look at the 700,000 visitors who contribute an estimated $116 million a year to see the islands 84 orcas and natural beauty. “One oil spill could change that overnight.” An additional 487 cargo ships filled with bunker fuel to get them across the Pacific Ocean will put an enormous stress on waterways already burdened with ships carrying   tar sand bitumen from Vancouver, B.C., and Anacortes, says Buffum. “The proponents of this coal project are trying to keep the scope as narrow as they can. We’re asking for assurances with regard to vessel traffic impacts. We’re asking that all of these combined vessels be analyzed with a vessel traffic report. And we’re asking for a comprehensive analysis of Cherry Point traffic as well as existing traffic and proposed shipping traffic from ports in Vancouver, Anacortes and the Salish Sea.” How many large Pan American size cargo ships can be at anchor safely in the Salish Sea, she asks? The question must be analyzed by the three agencies responsible for scoping the proposed coal terminal. “There are a lot of federal triggers here in the Salish Sea because of the 84 southern resident orcas. There’s going to be requirements for what’s called a Section 7 consultation with NOAA fisheries. Cherry Point herring are very, very critical for ensuring the viability of the southern resident whale.”  But, admits Buffum, agencies are sometimes at cross purposes with their own environmental mandate. “The orca whale was a long, long battle. It took five years to get the southern resident listed. There are 84 of those individual whales swimming in our waters today. The Cherry Point herring have had massive collapses since the 1970s. This species is critical to the success of salmon restoration and the salmon are critical to the success of orca whales reproduction.” 

What does she think it will take to move the agencies?  “I think it’s going to take each and every one of us in the state of Washington, of each and every one of us in the state of Oregon and each and every one of us in Montana to tell our public agencies there is no gain to be had by the export of coal our of Cherry Point in Bellingham. You can’t put a dollar amount on an orca whale. But let’s do it. Let’s say that $116 million dollars that’s coming into San Juan County is coming here on the backs of 84 whales. Is Cherry Point going to be contributing that equal amount to San Juan County’s economy? Or is Cherry Point going to put an additional pressure on San Juan County? San Juan County doesn’t think the Gateway Pacific Terminal project is worth the risk.”

For more information on the environmental review, you can visit the offical site here.

Green Acre Radio is brought to you with support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.