The Spokane County Fair and Expo Center was ground zero for a coal collision Tuesday.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hosted the public hearing to receive testimony on the environmental impact statement on a proposed coal terminal that, if built, will be 370 miles away to the west. But Bellingham would be just one stop for an expected 54 million tons of coal that would come through on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe main rail line through Spokane Valley each year before being shipped on to China.
The hearing drew 800 from this area, as well as Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to a prehearing rally as well as to testify on the impacts coal and the increase in rail traffic will have on the region.
It was the fifth of seven public comment opportunities for the proposed western Washington Cherry Point terminal.
Those who have lined up against the coal trains are the Sierra Club and other environmentalists, as well as doctors, church leaders, tribal members, and many local residents.
Those who wanted to speak either pro and con had to show up early – 75 were allowed to testify for a strict two minutes apiece.
Opponents – many dressed in red shirts – decried the coal trains and the potentially dangerous coal dust that will fly off of rail cars as they make their way to the $665 million Bellingham facility. The potential for derailments will also be increased due to the uptick in mile-long trains, as will stalled traffic at at-grade crossings at Pines, Barker and Park roads, among others, they say.
And, of course, there are the overarching concerns regarding global warming due to carbon dioxide release from coal-fired plants.
“I see coal trains and I see what they’re doing,” said Alaina Buffalo Spirit, a member of the Cheyenne tribe who traveled from Montana, who is critical of the plan.
Ben Stuckart, a Spokane City Council member, called Spokane a “choke point” for trains on their way to Bellingham and said rail traffic could increase by 63 trains a day if other port facilities are constructed in the future.
But proponents wearing green said the trains are already traveling through Eastern Washington and North Idaho and that the impacts – despite an estimated total 28 trains per day on BNSF and Union Pacific lines, if the Bellingham facility is built -- would be negligible compared to the benefit of the added jobs.
Those who say Cherry Point would be an economic boon include the Association of Washington Business, shippers, chambers of commerce and other pro-business groups.
“This area has been the hub of transportation throughout its history,” said Rich Hadley, CEO of Greater Spokane Inc., adding that the region could see an additional $500 million on an annual basis.
Railroad workers from BNSF who testified said they doubt their company could handle even 20 to 30 more trains a day and the number would likely be far smaller.
A potential compromise, as far as the health concerns go, is simply making sure the rail cars are covered. But rail employees say they don’t see any evidence of dust on themselves or on the rails after the trains pass at 50 mph.
“I’ll be living next to it, and I’m for it,” said Ken Foster, who came from Whatcom County. He added that the port could ship grains and other goods overseas, not just coal.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, speaking on behalf of local emergency responders, said he believes there would be “no negative impact” at rail crossings.
“We need to deal with the facts of the matter, not the emotions from coal,” he said.