BELLINGHAM - Close to 2,000 people came to Squalicum High School on Saturday, Oct. 27, to participate in a public meeting called to identify public concerns about the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier proposed at Whatcom County's Cherry Point.
Hundreds of participants waited outside in occasionally heavy rain for an hour or more before the doors opened at 11 a.m., because the two meeting rooms could provide speaking time for just 100 speakers apiece during the four-hour session, and they wanted to secure their places.
Gateway Pacific Terminal is being proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle, and could be operating by 2017 if it gets regulatory approval. At maximum capacity it could ship 54 million tons of bulk commodities a year, including 48 million tons of coal, to markets in Asia. Backers say it would generate millions in tax revenue, thousands of short-term construction jobs and more than 1,000 direct and indirect permanent jobs.
Although signs for and against the coal port lined the McLeod Road approach to the school in close to equal numbers, the crowd and the commenters in the meeting rooms seemed to be overwhelmingly against it.
Two representatives of Lummi Nation got the testimony off to an impassioned start.
Lummi Indian Business Council member Jay Julius said tribal leaders have been advised to wait until the coal port proposal gets scientific study before taking a stand, but he said that was not necessary.
"Science is respected by our nation, but we have our own knowledge and teaching," Julius said. "Lummi Nation says no. ... I am personally a fisherman as my great-great-great-grandparents were fishermen ... long before the arrival of science."
Julius noted that the meeting had been convened by Whatcom County, the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to gather comment on what issues should be studied during regulatory scrutiny. He called for a study of the impact that disturbance of an ancestral Lummi village at Cherry Point would have on the Lummi people.
"I would like to encourage a spiritual or soul study to be done ... to study the impacts that this will have on our people," Julius said, noting that tribal members still feel emotional scars from the unearthing of tribal graves at Semiahmoo some years ago.
It appears that the August, 2011 land-clearing work that an SSA Marine subcontractor, AMEC Earth & Environmental, conducted on the Gateway Pacific site for geotechnical surveys played a key role in turning Lummi Nation against the project. That work was done without required permits, prompting a $2,000 fine from Whatcom County.
The land-clearing also turned up shell midden material that indicated the site of a village that might be thousands of years old, according to a report that AMEC later submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That report, obtained from the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, makes no mention of disturbance of human remains.
But in remarks before the meeting began, Julius called the disturbance "criminal," and said the episode reopened old wounds from a Semiahmoo episode.
Julius also contended that the coal ship traffic to and from the terminal would eliminate fishing from Cherry Point to Point Roberts-some of the richest commercial fishing areas for Indian and non-Indian salmon fishermen.
SSA Marine says one to two vessels per day would call at the terminal at full capacity.
Lummi Nation Chairman Cliff Cultee also spoke out against Gateway Pacific.
"We always fight to protect and preserve the resources for the next seven generations," Cultee said. "Coal is a step in the wrong direction. ... I just want to stand united and protect this area and say no to coal."
Other anti-coal speakers said regulators need to study the potential negative impact on Whatcom County's reputation as a green community.
Nicole Brown, owner of the Moondance Farm near Wickersham, said that reputation is an economic plus for her.
"The markets that exist for our organic produce rely on the healthy reputation of our air and land and water," Brown said.
Many commenters expressed concern that the public and private costs of the coal terminal could outweigh the benefits of its jobs and tax revenue.
"We can't afford to be careless or to allow hidden costs to cripple our tax base 10 years down the road," said Judy Hopkinson of Bellingham, mentioning the possible need to build railroad overpasses to unsnarl traffic problems. "We could be looking at billions of dollars in mitigation costs that could be foisted off on the taxpayers."
Dan Pike, former Bellingham mayor, said regulatory agencies should get information on all the negative impacts to the region, not just Bellingham and Whatcom County. He argued that the disruptions from rail traffic will disrupt other job-creating activities.
"This is a loser just on the jobs side," Pike said. "The Port of Seattle complains about the blockage from a basketball stadium, but this would be many times more impactful to them."
Bellingham resident Lynn Shuster said the possible construction of a new rail siding to accommodate coal trains along the city waterfront should get close study.
"The waterfront is a jewel that defines Bellingham," Shuster said.
Coal's contribution to climate change was an issue on the minds of many.
Thelma Follett of Bellingham said the loss of polar ice is threatening the future of the polar bear population. She worried that some day, when local kids join the New Year's Day polar bear plunge at Birch Bay, they may have to ask, "What's a polar bear?"
More than one speaker saw the issue in apocalyptic terms.
"The desecration and extinction of life on Earth cannot be mitigated and is of inestimable value," said Barbara Schumacher. "Coal burning in Asia blows pollution back on the Pacific Northwest."
The potential effects on health from coal burning were cited repeatedly.
"Air pollution in China also affects our air here," said Carlotta Vanderbilt. "The Chinese already suffer from poor air quality. The burning of fossil fuels should not be facilitated by us. ... We would be contributing to China's health woes, and even to poorer health for our own citizens."
Rob Lewis argued that a coal terminal was contrary to community values that stress the environment and clean energy.
"This export terminal will make a mockery of these values," Lewis said. "Why put solar panels on your roof when we're shipping 54 million tons of coal to China? Why ride your bike to work if you're riding past coal trains?"
Train noise was another key topic.
Ken Bronstein said he serves on the board of directors of the Amadeus Project, a downtown music studio on Cornwall Avenue. An increase in levels of train noise could make the studio unusable, Bronstein said.
South side resident Tom Prichard said rail noise is already an issue even at current levels.
"At three o'clock, I'm wakened up almost every morning by some guy hanging on a horn," Prichard said.
Pro-terminal commenters were few, but their comments were received politely by the audience.
Bellingham resident Philip Hernandez said he favored the terminal "but not at any cost."
He suggested that some concerns about it are misplaced, while other problems could be solved. Federal regulations are imposing tougher emissions standards. He acknowledged that overpasses may need to be built for trains in Bellingham and at places like Grandview Road north of the city. BNSF Railway Co. should be asked to pay a share of the cost of sound walls to minimize noise problems.
Hernandez also argued that more rail traffic will occur even if Gateway Pacific is not built.
Laurie Hennessey, a spokeswoman for Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, said this region's economy is already reliant on exports, and Gateway Pacific will create thousands of good jobs. She argued that environmental issues can be addressed in a responsible way.
Brad Owens, president of the Northwest Washington Building and Construction Trades Council, said unemployment in those trades remains at about 30 percent. He said union members share environmental concerns, but they need a livelihood.
"Our council is about putting people to work," Owens said.
Another union official, Laborers Union head organizer Clarence Bob, said before the meeting that he too wants a robust environmental review of the project. As he sees it, if Gateway Pacific can't meet environmental standards spelled out in the law, it simply won't be built.
Bob, a former member of the Lummi Indian Business Council, bemoaned the divisions that have been stirred up over the issue.
"It's turned this town and this county upside down and it's a shame," Bob said. "On this particular issue there doesn't seem to be common ground in sight. Hopefully we'll go back to normal again some day."
Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or email@example.com. Read his Politics blog at TheBellinghamHerald.com/blogs.
Reach JOHN STARK at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2274.