Coal terminal backers say poll shows most residents are on their side

BELLINGHAM - Opponents of a proposed Cherry Point coal export terminal made an impressive show of strength at last weekend's environmental issues meeting, but the company hoping to build the terminal contends that a sizeable majority of Whatcom and Skagit County residents favor the project - or at least they did in May 2012, when the company commissioned a professional poll on the issue.

SSA Marine of Seattle commissioned the study to gauge public attitudes toward SSA's Gateway Pacific Terminal project. In an email message, SSA spokesman Gary Smith said the polling was done by Kiley and Co. of Boston. The poll included a random sample of 601 voters, 401 in Whatcom County and 200 in Skagit County.

While Smith said that much of the poll data "is for our use only," he did provide the text and methodology for a couple of key questions that he said were supposed to offer poll participants a fair and accurate statement of arguments for and against the coal terminal:

- "Supporters say this new, highly efficient terminal will help make American commodities such as grain and coal more competitive in international markets. It will create more than four thousand jobs during the construction phase and more than twelve hundred permanent family-wage jobs once the facility is operational. It will also generate millions of dollars in needed new tax revenue for schools and public services in this part of the state, and the project's design will ensure that it meets stringent environmental standards.

- "Opponents say this project will pose environmental risks to the region, citing concerns about coal dust from rail cars and the terminal being discharged into the air and water. They say this will pose serious health risks to residents and harm local marine life. They say the job-creation claims of supporters of the project are exaggerated. Critics also say the terminal will require a major increase in train traffic throughout the region, hurting our quality of life and discouraging redevelopment of the Bellingham waterfront.

- "Having heard from both sides, are you inclined to favor or oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal?"

At that point in the survey, Smith said 56 percent said they were inclined to favor it, with 38 percent opposed.

Smith added that the pollsters alternated the order of the first two paragraphs leading up to the question: Half the time, opponents' arguments got first billing.

The pollsters then presented participants with what Smith called "more detailed information on both sides of the issue" before asking the question again:

"Having heard from both sides, are you inclined to favor or oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal?"

At that point, Smith said, the results were 59 percent in favor of the coal terminal, with 36 percent opposed. There was little difference in responses between Whatcom and Skagit counties, he added.

Not everyone was impressed by the poll.

Todd Donovan, Western Washington University political science professor, said it was difficult to judge the poll's results without seeing all of the questions that came before the key ones. But as Donovan saw it, the wording of the poll questions did contain subtle inducements to support the project.

"From what we do see, the question wording is loaded," Donovan said in an email message. "The terminal is 'highly efficient,' and grain is mentioned before coal."

Donovan also contended that the wording of the poll question presents arguments in favor of the terminal as facts, while opponents' concerns are offered as mere assertions.

"Some respondents could have been hearing, 'Do you agree with supporters of a highly efficient thing that is certain to do great stuff, or do you agree with critics who speculate about stuff?'" Donovan wrote.

Frank James, an organizer of the Whatcom Docs group that focuses on health risks from the terminal, said he thinks there has been a significant shift in public opinion since the SSA poll was conducted last May, and that the anti-Gateway Pacific turnout at the Oct. 27 scoping meeting reflects that.

"This study looks at a time when people simply did not have the information they needed to be informed," James said in an email. "Most people there (at the Oct. 27 meeting) stated that well over 90 percent of the speakers were against the construction of the terminal in both rooms taking testimony. I believe that this PR piece from SSA is in fact just another attempt at 'AstroTurfing' the issues."

"AstroTurfing" is a term used to deride attempts to fake a show of public "grass-roots" support for something.

Kimberly Larson, spokeswoman for the Climate Solutions group, said the same.

"The more residents find out about the details and the impacts, the more they are opposed," Larson said in an email, adding that after hearing testimony at the Oct. 27 meeting she encountered people who removed their pro-terminal stickers and asked for anti-terminal signs.

An online poll at The Bellingham Herald's website found few people reporting they had changed their minds on the coal terminal issue. Online polls can't provide a reliable estimate of overall public opinion, since website visitors who chose to participate in the poll do not represent a random sample that represents all segments of the public.

But for what it's worth, only 4 percent of 2,161 poll participants said they had switched from initial support to opposition. Only 3 percent said they had switched from opposition to support. Thirty-nine percent described themselves as "against it from the beginning," while 43 percent said they had "favored it from the beginning."

Communitywise Bellingham board member Jack Delay contended that SSA shifted the poll results in favor of the terminal by overstating the positive impact on jobs.

"This is not a major source of industrial jobs - it's not a 5,000 employee car plant exporting products," Delay said in an email. "At the base, Gateway Pacific is a 221 (job) shift-employee export terminal selling taxpayer-subsidized energy to our overseas competitors. Whatcom County generates just as many jobs every couple of months, even in these times. ... In the final analysis, the questions of importance for the future of our community should be addresses by facts, not PR."

Gateway Pacific's estimates of job creation rely on an economic study that added indirect employment in rail, maritime and other related industries linked to the terminal's operations.

Jeff Margolis, active in the "Save the South Fork" group concerned about possible diversion of coal trains through their rural area, observed that coal terminal supporters have been spending large sums on advertising in recent weeks. As Margolis sees it, that campaign may be evidence that backers are trying to counter an anti-coal surge in public opinion.

Margolis also suggested that people won't have to wait long to get a better survey of public opinion: the Nov. 6 election results. In the 42nd District legislative race, for example, outspoken Gateway Pacific foe Matt Krogh, a Democrat, is running against Republican incumbent Vincent Buys, who has been somewhat supportive of the project, as long as it can survive the environmental scrutiny involved in the permit process.

Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the SSA poll results did not surprise him. He said he has talked to some people in the business community who support Gateway Pacific but have felt a bit intimidated by the passion of its opponents, although he also volunteered that opponents were admirably civil Oct. 27 when pro-terminal speakers were at the microphone.

As Oplinger sees it, the coal export terminal has more quiet support than many people realize.

While Oplinger said he welcomes SSA's potential $650 million investment in Whatcom County and the jobs that could bring, he contends that it's too early for anyone to embrace or reject Gateway Pacific. That should wait until the economic and environmental study of its impacts is complete - a process that could take years.

"I think it's premature for anyone to be taking a position on it one way or another," Oplinger said. "We have a lot of work to do."