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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

NW coal port hearing draws 800 at fairgrounds

Coal export opponents, left to right, Wayne Spitzer, Ginger Hughes and April Beasley respond to a pro-export speaker’s testimony Tuesday at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center. (Colin Mulvany)

Eight hundred people poured into Spokane County Fair and Expo Center on Tuesday afternoon to debate a proposed coal port facility in northwest Washington.

Proponents stressed jobs; environmentalists talked about risks, including global warming from expanding coal consumption in Asia.

People lined up early to secure a limited number of speaking spots handed out to those first in line.

A trade organization promoting coal shipments hired about 30 temporary workers to stand in line from 8 a.m. until 3:45 p.m. to get speaking spots for their representatives.

Environmentalists arrived early as well to ensure that people traveling from communities near the coal fields of Montana and Wyoming would get a chance to speak.

“My land is beautiful. The river is clean,” said Alaina Buffalo Spirit, a member of the North Cheyenne Tribe living near Colstrip, Mont. “I would like to see it stay that way.”

Spokane City Councilman Ben Stuckart warned about increasing coal train shipments through Spokane and North Idaho.

“We are the choke point for the rail traffic that will come through,” he said.

He was followed by Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, the area’s business development organization. “I prefer not to call it a choke point,” he said, referring to the Inland Northwest as an important transportation corridor.

Business representatives said trade is credited with one in three Washington jobs, and the Cherry Point coal port near Bellingham would put more people to work.

“We believe in exporting,” said Matt McCoy, of the International Trade Alliance in Spokane.

Dan Thompson, a union railroad engineer in Spokane, testified, “We need all the union jobs we can get.”

He said fear about coal dust flying off rail cars in the Inland Northwest is unfounded. “There is no coal dust landing on us,” he said in a brief interview outside the hearing.

The meeting was the fifth of seven such meetings in Washington, all drawing large crowds.

The event became something of a show when environmentalists rallied about an hour before the official start.

Spokane’s Community School Drummers thumped out their catchy rhythms. The Spokane chapter of Raging Grannies sang warning songs.

They were backed up by someone holding a large sign that read, “Do we need 60 more trains per day.”

The Western Organization of Resource Councils earlier this year estimated that an additional 28 coal trains a day would go through Sandpoint and Spokane by 2017. The number of trains could rise to 63 a day based on proposals for other port facilities across the Pacific Northwest.

BNSF Railway, one of the shippers through Spokane, estimated that eight to 16 trains are possible each day through Spokane.

Julie Strandquist, a registered nurse, warned about the effect of coal dust coming off the trains and higher incidences of childhood cancer.

Jeff King, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member, said he had worked in the mines but now believes the country should move on to less-polluting energy sources.

The meeting was convened jointly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington State Department of Ecology and the Whatcom County Council to identify issues to be studied as part of the environmental impact assessments for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal and Custer rail spur near Birch Bay.

Environmentalists argue that the study should include impacts from mining and shipping, including threats to waterways from coal spills or dust.

The temporary workers who stood in line for pro-coal speaking spots arrived as a group about 8 a.m. wearing green T-shirts. They lined up behind a small number of environmentalists who had the first places in line, witnesses said.

Only one of the temporary workers acknowledged that he was hired for the day to hold a spot. The others declined to comment.

Money for the temporary workers came through the Northwest Alliance for Jobs and Exports, an industry- and union-backed group that organized the pro-coal side of Tuesday’s meeting.

Lauri Hennessey, a spokeswoman for the alliance, said that rules allowing testimony on a first-come basis resulted in people holding spots in line on both sides of the debate at earlier hearings in other cities. About hiring temporary workers, she said, “We are not ashamed of that in any way.”

Coal opponent Michael Beasley, of Spokane, said the two sides got along nonetheless.

“These are a bunch of people trying to put food on the table,” he said of the temporary workers.