BELLINGHAM - More than 300 people packed into Mayor Dan Pike's community meeting Wednesday, June 1, to discuss concerns about the environmental effects from the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal and bulk cargo export terminal that SSA Marine wants to build at Cherry Point.
Mayor Dan Pike and moderator Linda Stewart encouraged those who spoke at the session at Bellingham Municipal Court to focus on identifying issues that should be studied as part of the lengthy environmental-impact statement process that the Gateway Pacific project will need to undergo before SSA Marine can get the local, state and federal permits the company will need to build the $700 million facility.
They also encouraged everyone to abstain from clapping and cheering and to treat all viewpoints with respect.
But many of those who spoke were more interested in stating their determined opposition to the Gateway Pacific project for a wide range of reasons: health effects from coal dust and ship and locomotive emissions; climate change from the burning of exported coal in China; disruption of waterfront redevelopment plans because of excessive train traffic through the city; reduced property values from railroad dirt and noise; and a black eye for Bellingham's image as a green community.
Many of those who opposed the cargo terminal applauded like-minded speakers. They also showered a local labor leader with catcalls when he said unemployed workers need the jobs that Gateway Pacific could provide.
David Warren, past president of the Whatcom Central Labor Council, said union leaders had been rebuffed when they asked local environmental leaders to meet with them to discuss Gateway Pacific.
"We've lost 3,500 to 4,000 jobs in the last several years in this area," Warren said. "You can't say you're for jobs if you are against the industries that provide them."
Warren said he too wants the project to get tough environmental scrutiny before it is built, but environmentalists' hostility to Gateway Pacific has destroyed the alliance between them and organized labor.
"The relationship is over," Warren said. "We're going to fight for these jobs ... let me express my disappointment at how quickly the people of this community can turn their backs on the unemployed."
At that point, jeers drowned out his remarks.
Warren and a handful of other union members and officials at the meeting were outnumbered heavily.
Sara Mostad, a Bellingham physician, presented Pike with a letter that she said had been signed by 80 local physicians, expressing their concern about the effect that coal dust and diesel pollution would have on human health. She said there is ample research that links that pollution to higher rates of childhood asthma, heart disease, and lung cancer, and those risks need to be evaluated.
Bellingham resident Dana Lyons was among the most outspoken in opposition to the project.
"No port, no way," Lyons said. "We have a long battle ahead of us against the biggest economic forces in the world."
When he suggested that civil disobedience might be a necessary opposition strategy, he got some loud cheers.
Fairhaven resident Robert Wright said he had experienced the effects of heavy coal train traffic in the Midwest.
"I can tell you right now it completely degrades the quality of sleep," Wright said.
Dianna Kirkham said her Rural Avenue home is close to the railroad tracks, and she already deals with blackened windows and foundation damage she believes is caused by train vibration.
"I don't think I can take any more rail traffic," Kirkham said.
Bellingham resident Karen Weill said the pollution from Chinese coal burning will blow back here.
"In some ways you can look at shipping coal to China as contributing to our own deaths," Weill said. "Why aren't we building windmills in Whatcom County? Why aren't we building solar panels in Whatcom County?"
Before the start of the public comments, environmental attorney and former Whatcom County Planning Commission member Jean Melious said the environmental scrutiny that major projects like this must undergo is real and meaningful. She added that the environmental study process won't get under way in earnest until later in the summer, when regulatory agencies will hold meetings to get public comment on what environmental concerns need to be studied.
Whatcom County will play a key role in that process, but the city has no regulatory power over the Gateway Pacific proposal.