Just before 6 a.m. on October 27, Bellingham residents switched on their flashlights, set up lawn chairs outside a local high school, and broke out thermoses of coffee. By 11 a.m., 2,000 people had arrived to comment on a proposed coal terminal outside their city that could soon be exporting up to 54 million metric tons of coal annually to Asia.
That is, if certain businesses get their way.
SSA Marine, an international shipping- terminal firm, applied for permits in February 2011 to build the $500 million facility at Cherry Point, triggering environmental reviews led by the US Army Corps of Engineers and Washington's Department of Ecology. If approved, up to 18 trains would rumble through the region daily—traveling through Spokane, the Columbia River Gorge, and up the coast through Longview, Tacoma, Seattle, Edmonds, Everett, Mount Vernon, and Bellingham—blocking traffic and leaving clouds of coal dust in their wake. The agencies are now in the midst of a three-month public comment period to determine which impacts should be studied before issuing or denying permits. The comment period ends January 21, 2013.
Now that the elections have passed, these coal trains are setting up to be the biggest political showdown in Washington State. Environmental groups say that the groundswell of community opposition is their best avenue for killing the five terminals proposed in Bellingham and Longview, Washington, and the Oregon port towns of Boardman, Clatskanie, and Coos Bay. Thousands of people have been packing public meetings, encouraging state and federal officials to deny permits outright.
"The response has been spectacular and rather unprecedented," says Ross Macfarlane, a spokesman for the environmental group Climate Solutions. For example, on November 3, more than 500 people assembled in Friday Harbor to protest the terminal, and on the eve of the election, another 1,000 people repeated the process in Mount Vernon. Now another meeting is scheduled in Seattle. But that event, originally scheduled for November 13, was forecast to have such large attendance that officials moved it from North Seattle Community College to the Washington State Convention Center to accommodate a crowd six times larger and postponed it until December 13.
Protesters already helped kill one coal terminal last summer, slated for Grays Harbor. "After hearing from the community, the terminal said that they wanted to ship friendlier, healthier items than coal out there," explains Krista Collard, a spokeswoman for the Northwest chapter of the Sierra Club.
At the meetings, people raised a slew of concerns. In Bellingham, physicians spoke of increased risks of lung and cardiac disease along the coal train corridors, while others questioned how emergency vehicles would be delayed by mile-and-a-half-long trains blocking streets every hour.
In response, coal, terminal, and railroad companies have hired their own lobbyists, working under the umbrella of the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, to saturate local television stations with close to $1 million in television ads. Coal terminal proponents also argue that interstate commerce laws prevent local authorities from blocking coal shipments from passing through their jurisdictions.
But Macfarlane and other environmentalists say they're wrong. In order to proceed with the coal terminals, companies must first secure development permits from local county councils, aquatic lease permits from public lands commissioner Peter Goldmark, and approval for the projects from the state Department of Ecology and federal Army Corps of Engineers.
"We can defeat this," says Macfarlane. "There's plenty of authority in state law to deny permits. The key is to show up in force and let politicians know the consequences of rubber-stamping these projects."