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Sparks Fly At Local Coal Terminal Hearing

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(Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

(Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

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SEATTLE (AP) — More than 2,000 opponents and supporters of a plan to ship coal through a northwest Washington terminal turned out Thursday for a final public meeting on the controversial proposal.

Six other public meetings have been conducted around the state concerning a possible coal export terminal near Ferndale. The hearings are designed to help government agencies determine the scope of a planned environmental impact statement.

Many business and labor groups support the plan, saying it will mean jobs and commerce.

Among the worries are coal’s contribution to global warming and the potential impact to Puget Sound’s ecosystem.

Opponents who testified ranged from a Seattle schoolgirl concerned about the environment to a southeast Montana ranch manager worried about how mining the coal in his state will affect the groundwater he relies on.

“Children like me have things taken away by global warming,” said Rachel Howell, 12. She listed salmon, oysters and skiing as joys in her life that could be threatened.

“More coal mining where I live to meet the Asian market will impact my livelihood in many ways, but particularly groundwater,” said Brad Sauer, who manages a 123-year-old Montana ranch. He said that for water, his ranch relies on a shallow aquifer that is threatened by huge, unreclaimed open-pit coal mines.

The $600 million Gateway Pacific Project proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle at Cherry Point is the largest of five proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon. The terminals would ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to power plants in Asia. The terminal could handle up to 54 million bulk tons a year. It could handle other bulk cargo, such as grain.

China will find coal even if the United States won’t deliver it, said Herb Krohn from the United Transportation Union. “All we would do is force (China) to buy dirtier, more-polluting coal,” he said.

The Seattle hearing was moved to the state convention center because it can accommodate 3,500 people. About 650 people attended a Wednesday night hearing in Vancouver, and hundreds more attended recent meetings in Spokane, Ferndale, Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Friday Harbor.

Coal export opponents staged an outdoor protest earlier Thursday at a park near the convention center.

Coal port supporters also gathered before the hearing. Labor unions representing construction trades say coal shipments will require expanded port facilities, which will boost jobs in the region.

King County Executive Dow Constantine spoke to opponents, saying he was against shipping up to 18 trainloads of coal through Seattle, which he called the county’s “jewel.” Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen spoke to supporters, saying the coal shipments can be done in an environmentally sound manner.

The prospect of long coal trains rolling through Seattle’s downtown waterfront is not welcomed by Mayor Mike McGinn. He announced Wednesday the city would commission a study on the local traffic and safety impacts of an estimated 18 coal trains a day.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington State Department of Ecology and the Whatcom County Council scheduled the hearings to identify issues to be studied. The public comment period remains open through Jan. 21, and then an environmental impact statement will be drafted.

Critics want a broad study of economic and environmental impacts well beyond Cherry Point.

“Expanding the scope of environmental review would have a devastating impact,” Brandon Housekeeper of the Association of Washington Business told the pre-hearing gathering of coal port supporters.

With the threat of that kind of review, he said, the state might as well post signs at the border that read: “Don’t do business here. Washington is not open for business.”

Other coal export ports are under consideration at Longview and in Oregon at Coos Bay, Port of Morrow and St. Helens. A proposal at Grays Harbor, Wash., has been shelved.

“Have you experienced what coal dust can do to property? I have,” Vancouver resident Toni Montgomery, who lives near a railroad track, said at the Wednesday meeting. She said pollution and train congestion are significant concerns.

“It’s a dangerous mess,” Montgomery said.

Locomotive engineer John Lawson of Kennewick spoke in favor of coal exports in Vancouver.

“My biggest concern has been the impact on the economy,” he said, adding such projects “provide a tax boost to our state” to pay for services.

 

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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