SPOKANE - More than 800 people on Tuesday filled the Expo Building at the Spokane County Fairgrounds, determined to have a say about a coal export terminal that is proposed for Cherry Point north of Bellingham, Wash.
Coal would travel to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal through Montana, North Idaho and Washington state, and then be shipped to China. The proposed deep-water marine terminal would handle the export of up to 54 million tons of bulk commodities per year, nearly all of that coal. SSA Marine is behind the project.
Advocates of the project, many of them wearing green T-shirts, said China is going to burn coal regardless of where it gets it, so workers here should benefit by providing the resource, not those in another state or British Columbia, Canada. Getting that coal to China would produce railroad jobs in addition to jobs in Whatcom County, where the terminal would be built. Those workers would spend their money locally, benefitting state businesses.
Opponents, who outnumbered the others and showed up wearing red T-shirts, said coal is a dirty, old source of energy and its time has passed. They said residents in Montana, North Idaho and Washington would be affected by flaking coal dust and diesel fumes as large numbers of long trains would roll through towns like Sandpoint and Spokane on the way west. Opponents said if the terminal is built it could mean an increase of 18 trains per day through Spokane.
Whatcom County, Wash., officials, the Washington state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will conduct an environmental review. The county and those agencies said an environmental impact statement is required to determine how the project would affect the environment from the mine to the terminal.
Tuesday's hearing was to help them decide what factors to analyze and what geographic area to consider. Opponents demanded that air emissions, noise, and traffic effects to North Idaho, Montana and Eastern Washington be taken into consideration. There is also a question about public safety from derailments or a spill.
Sandpoint City Councilman Aaron Qualls said the city adopted a resolution earlier this year calling for the deciding bodies to take into consideration the adverse impacts to communities like his that sit along the coal's route from the Powder River Basin, which is in Montana and Wyoming, to western Washington. Looking only at impacts at the site of the terminal is insufficient, he said.
"We'd like them to include us in the scope of the (environmental impact statement)," he said. "There might be some economic benefit to Whatcom County and to the energy companies operating out of the Powder River Basin, but at what cost to all the communities in between?"
Ian Primmer, of the United Transportation Union local 1505, which is based in Rathdrum, said, "Coal is a job creator."
He said the coal cars don't flake coal off to the extent opponents contend.
"They're not flaking large amounts," he said. "These people just don't understand the facts."
Steve Hart, a locomotive engineer with BNSF Railway Co., and Liberty Lake resident, said, "I'm one of the guys who personally hauls the coal trains through downtown Spokane."
He said this is a jobs issue. The new Cherry Point terminal could produce about 100 new railroad jobs, adding to 400 existing ones to handle the transport of coal from the Powder River Basin to western Washington.
"So that's 500-plus jobs that are in this pipeline," he said. "We all need to consider that, because that's important. That's what pays the bills in this country."
Crystal Gartner, of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said Spokane currently has between one and five coal trains coming through town each day. That's out of a total of approximately 70 trains through town each day.
"So we're talking about a huge potential spike in coal-train traffic," Gartner said. "And these are the heaviest, longest trains out there. And they're the dirtiest and potentially most dangerous trains in terms of traffic."
Jani Gilbert, a spokeswoman for the Department of Ecology, said the process of considering the project is in the early stages.
"This meeting and the others around the state of Washington are to get testimony about what we should study in order to have enough information to make permitting decisions," Gilbert said. "So we don't know what everybody is concerned about, and that's what we're collecting now."
The current "scoping" process will continue through Jan. 21 with more public hearings in Washington. There are no formal hearings in Idaho or Montana.
A draft environmental impact statement would follow, along with public comment on that document. A final impact statement would be issued after comments on the draft are considered.
Also, in a related project, BNSF has proposed adding rail facilities adjacent to the Cherry Point terminal site, and installing a second track along a six-mile spur.