King Coal was not popular Thursday night in Seattle as the public meetings to set the scope of environmental review of a proposed coal-export terminal north of Bellingham drew to a close.
Over 2,000 people, heavily tilted toward opponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, talked, listened and waved signs before a panel of federal, state and Whatcom County officials charged with deciding what topics will be studied in a lengthy environmental impact process. The session, at the Washington Conference Center, was the largest of seven sessions stretching from Ferndale to Spokane.
Increasingly it zeroed in on the commodity itself — coal, some 48 millions tons to be shipped to Asia each year if the terminal is completed in perhaps five years. Climate change and the health hazards of coal dust from long coal trains were foremost for many speakers.
The Seattle meeting also drew a large representation of Native Americans. Lummi Nation speakers decried what they termed desecration of a burial site under a conveyor system, as well as danger to a traditional fishery. Swinnomish and Cheyenne speakers were also heard.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, flanked by four city council members, called for environmental review of impacts on SoDo traffic and joined others in urging a broad study of climate change and the burning of coal in Asia. McGinn echoed others in noting, “This decision will affect our communities, our families and our quality of life for decades to come. We must make the right choice.” The mayor earlier ordered an economic review of the proposal.
With the Seattle hearing, some 8,000 people have attended the scoping meetings, an unprecedented turnout; with the exception of Ferndale, near the proposed terminal site, opponents have largely dominated the proceedings. They also prevailed at a Wednesday meeting in Vancouver, attended by about 800.
Supporters of the SSA Marine project, largely from rail, construction and longshore unions, have touted jobs to be created, and some Thursday also defended shipping of coal, contending that the jobs would go to other nations if the U.S. didn’t export the coal.
As the three-hour meeting drew to a close, the red-shirted opponents began to cheer speakers, ignoring rules for silent sign-waving. Still, forum monitors seemed to accept the exuberance of a crowd that for Thursday at least, clearly had the upper hand, chanting at one point, “We won’t do this” over and over.
In addition to the meetings, some 9,000 comments about the proposed coal port have been recorded online. Online statements — which the agencies insist will have equal weight with the spoken testimony — may be recorded here, and also viewed. Online testimony closes Jan. 21, after which the agencies are expected to take at least a month or two to recommend a scope of study.