Cherry Point meeting draws hundreds

Published on Thu, Jun 9, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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A Bellingham meeting held to discuss the proposed Cherry Point shipping terminal drew an overflow crowd to the city’s main courthouse. Bellingham mayor Dan Pike called the June 1 listening session to solicit public input on the proposal.

About 250 people packed the seats in the courtroom to voice their opinion on what environmental, health and transportation impacts should be considered during the permitting process for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Another 80 or so people were left outside the meeting after Bellingham fire officials prevented them from entering due to safety concerns.

“The reason we’re not using the balcony is because it’s not structurally sound,” Bellingham mayor Dan Pike said in response to questions from the crowd on why the balcony seating could not be used.

Pike made it clear that the meeting was not an official scoping public hearing and that the city has no regulatory control over the project. Whatcom County has tentatively scheduled scoping hearings for late July.

Comments at the meeting mostly opposed the terminal with applause emanating from the crowd after particularly impassioned input, though meeting moderator Linda Stewart discouraged applause at the start of the public comment period. 

Concerns focused on the impacts of coal, one of the main commodities the terminal is slated to handle. Speakers addressed everything from the possibility of coal dust filling the air as coal trains rumble through Bellingham to the transportation snarls the mile-long trains could cause. Many also spoke out about the dangers of coal as an energy source and maintained coal should not be burned at all, much less shipped to Asian markets via the proposed terminal.

“We won’t be able to brag about Bellingham’s air quality after coal trains start coming through,” Bellingham resident Dan Hood said.

Other members of the public said the EIS should include areas outside of Bellingham and even the environmental impacts of power plants in China burning coal shipped through the terminal. Birch Bay resident Ellie Breedlove said the herring populations that call Cherry Point home should be one of the main concerns.

More than a few Bellingham residents encouraged organized protests and boycotts if the terminal were approved. Some speakers offered no suggestions for the EIS at all.

“We need to start thinking about coordinated, ongoing civil disobedience in every town along the [trains’] route,” said one Bellingham resident, drawing applause from the crowd.

Few proponents of the terminal made comments and those who did step up to the microphone got no applause and sometimes boos from the crowd. Bellingham resident Chris Johnson thanked Pike for organizing the meeting and said he is looking forward to the EIS so he can learn the facts and not be subjected to scare tactics. Johnson added that coal trains have been traveling through Bellingham for decades with no major health impacts.

The room’s harshest responses were saved for Northwest Washington Labor Council president emeritus David Warren, one of the terminal’s strongest supporters. Warren maintained that the terminal would only operate under the strictest environmental regulations and that jobs created from its construction and operation would help the county’s lagging economy.

Warren said he was disappointed to see so many county residents turn their back on the unemployed, which drew shouts of disapproval from the crowd. After his three-minute comment limit passed, Warren continued to try to make a point but was quickly shouted down by the crowd.

The project has inspired opposition ever since Seattle-based SSA Marine announced its plans to revive the long-stalled Gateway Pacific Terminal project in February. Soon afterward, SSA Marine announced it had signed a contract with Peabody Energy, one of the world’s largest energy companies, to ship 24 million tons of coal through the terminal from Peabody’s mines in Wyoming.

The terminal, able to receive 250,000-ton bulk transport ships, would sit on the shoreline between the Alcoa Intalco aluminum smelter and the BP refinery. If the project is approved, construction is slated to start in 2013 and last until 2015.

Additional comments on the terminal can be emailed to mayorsoffice@cob.org. Audio of the meeting can be found at here.