Growing coal-port opposition creates tough choices for regulators

Thousands of people turned out for seven regional meetings about plans to export coal for burning in China. Officials must now decide whether to tackle the concerns about train traffic and global warming.
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Mayor Mike McGinn, flanked by standing city council members (l to r) Jean Godden, Richard Conlin and Mike O'Brien, tells officials at a meeting on coal ports that he supports an area-wide study of the impacts.

Thousands of people turned out for seven regional meetings about plans to export coal for burning in China. Officials must now decide whether to tackle the concerns about train traffic and global warming.

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.

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.

Before taking the case to their bosses, agency representatives must plow through thousands of comments in addition to those spoken at the meetings (You can read online comments here). They insist they read all except form letters (which are counted but not posted online), and they have learned from the process. Perry says he's picked up at least 10 ideas he hadn't previously considered, and a new suggestion can arrive at any time.

Thursday night, just as the meeting was to conclude, one of the final speakers raised a question that in turn raised panel eyebrows. Chris Bast of Climate Solutions called attention to Seattle waterfront rail tunnel and suggested the scope include review of diesel-emissions ventilation at the tunnel mouth, which he said might exceed federal air-quality guidelines when used by long coal trains. It was the first time in hours of testimony that the issue was voiced and the panel was taking notes.

Jack Delay of CommunityWise Bellingham, who has followed the issue, feels it should be addressed in the environmental review: "Effective lobbying has kept locomotives exempt from the same pollution standards applied to other industries for decades. EPA Tier 4 standards, which reduce emissions by 90 percent, will be finally required in 2015, but only on new equipment. It will take many decades for existing equipment to be retired. A requirement for the use of only Tier 4 equipment . . . would provide some mitigation of health hazards. This approach could provide benefits along the entire corridor from Powder River Basin to Cherry Point if adopted more broadly."

So what are the regulators hearing, and how is it likely to affect the plan to ship coal to Asia through Pacific Northwest ports — primarily Bellingham and Longview?

Several observations may be offered by one who attended five of the meetings, missing only Spokane and Vancouver.

There is passion in the opposition and, although emotion cannot be studied as an environmental impact, neither can it be mitigated by advertising and PR.

Opponents remind an observer of the coalition that drove the Obama campaign in November: They are young, well-educated and willing to sacrifice economic growth for a livable environment; they are joined by retirees with hefty professional and scientific resumes and a majority of their strongest speakers are women. Sound familiar?

The scoping meetings were supposed to gather data, not debate the merits of shipping coal, agencies reminded audiences at each stop. The meetings, however, allowed a lot of people to let off steam, and if their views are sidelined in a bureaucratic process that ignores the steam, more energy will follow and it will target political offices.

Politicians studiously stayed away from the early sessions; by the time they got to Seattle they were front and center. King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Mike McGinn, accompanied by several city council members, spoke at the Seattle hearing. A day earlier, the mayor of Vancouver, Tim Leavitt, spoke to a coal-opposition rally before the official meeting for southern Washington. Something is afoot for the politically ambitious.

There is always a chance that Congress or the Washington Legislature could intervene, but the topic has become so complex that attempts to solve the disputes by legislation would be very difficult. Lobbyists are standing by.

Social media and online sources, including Facebook and the media, played a huge role in raising awareness of the issue. The largest newspapers in the state largely ignored the building movement and none have done in-depth reporting on the issues raised in the meetings. Yet thousands turned out, responding to friends who tweeted and emailed and passed along blogs and the online work of sustainability and environmental groups.

The issues most-mentioned in online comments and in the forums would be very difficult to study in a single-project review of the sort SSA Marine and other project backers would like. One cannot really consider the impacts of rail traffic by considering only Gateway Pacific without also looking at a terminal of equal size at Longview, which would nearly double the rail traffic generated by Gateway Pacific. But if a "cumulative area-wide review" is ordered — as is possible — what is the area and which of the impacts will be studied in this manner? There is little precedent.

Climate change is much on the minds of those who commented; whether the Northwest can be the finger in the dike that holds off the onslaught of this phenomenon is doubtful, but it may be the nub of the matter. The latest poll on the subject shows more Americans believe the globe is warming, and 57 percent want the federal government to "do a great deal" about it; the devil, of course is in the details.

It is the details arising from the scoping sessions rather than the passion they generate that will determine the shape of what promises to be a long and exhaustive review of Gateway Pacific and perhaps other coal-export proposals. The process has turned up a ton of details, from coal dust to diesel emissions, shellfish to burial sites, traffic congestion to whales. And so it went, and so it goes, perhaps for quite a while.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.