Coal terminal backers bring petitions to County Courthouse

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 27, 2012 

BELLINGHAM - Backers of the Gateway Pacific Terminal project brought a stack of about 10,000 petition signatures to the office of Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws Tuesday, Nov. 27, in an attempt to show broad public support for the coal export pier proposed at Cherry Point.

Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Gateway Pacific's opponents have prejudged the project's environmental impact before all the facts are in.

"There are a lot of folks in this county who need jobs," Oplinger said. "What we're asking for is that this project get a fair hearing. ... Trying to kick these folks out of our county is not what Whatcom County is about."

Accompanied by a group of about 25 people, Oplinger and Laborers' Union official Chris Johnson lugged two big boxes with signed petitions to Louws' office.

Louws was not there to greet them. His receptionists said they would forward the petitions on to Tyler Schroeder, the Whatcom County planning manager in charge of the local portion of regulatory review of the project.

Oplinger and Johnson are among the leaders of the Northwest Jobs Alliance, formed to support the coal terminal project.

Craig Cole, a spokesman for terminal developer SSA Marine of Seattle, said about 90 percent of the signatures were gathered from Whatcom County residents on paper. The rest were online petition endorsements that may include some people from outside the area.

Besides the petitions, the backers also dropped off resolutions of support from Washington Realtors, Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, Pierce County Central Labor Council, Washington State Labor Council, and the Northwest Washington Building and Construction Trades Council.

SSA wants to build the coal and bulk cargo terminal at an industrial site the company owns at the end of Gulf Road, south of the BP Cherry Point refinery.

The terminal could be operating by 2017 if local, state and federal agencies approve. At maximum capacity it could ship 54 million tons of bulk commodities a year, including 48 million tons of coal, to markets in Asia.

Business and labor organizations say they want the project to get a thorough environmental review, but they also welcome the added millions in tax revenue, thousands of short-term construction jobs and more than 1,000 direct and indirect permanent jobs that SSA promises.

Opponents say the project would disrupt life in Bellingham and other places with excessive rail traffic that would snarl street crossings and cause noise and diesel pollution problems. They also contend that the coal shipped to Asia would worsen climate change from coal-burning.

While the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have staked out a position flatly opposing the project, they also have called on federal, state and county regulators to conduct a sweeping environmental review that would study potential harmful impacts all along the rail lines between Whatcom County and Wyoming-Montana coal mines.

They also want regulators to consider the potential global impact of increased coal burning in Asia that the project could accommodate.

Opponents have turned out by the hundreds at preliminary meetings held to gather opinion about what issues to study as part of the multi-year regulatory process.

Gateway Pacific's backers have managed to turn out far fewer numbers. But backers say the meetings don't reflect broad public opinion. They have produced opinion polls that seem to show a majority of people in Whatcom County and the wider Northwest region are favorably disposed toward the project.

GATEWAY PACIFIC MEETING THURSDAY

People interested in a proposed Cherry Point coal export terminal will get another chance to share their views about its potential impacts with county, state and federal officials from 3 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, at Ferndale Events Center, 5715 Barrett Road.

The meeting is the fourth in a series conducted by the Whatcom County Planning Department, Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Participants are asked to offer testimony about what environmental and economic issues should be studied as part of the environmental impact statement.

More details about the review process and how to comment are online at eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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