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Controversy continues over proposed coal export terminals

Photo by Marcus Donner
Rainforest Action Network / Flickr
On September 14, 2011, activists projected anti-coal light banners on iconic Seattle locations, such as Kerry Park, to elevate the profile of controversial proposed coal ports in the Pacific Northwest.

Trainloads of coal from Montana and Wyoming will soon be shipped through Northwest ports to Asia, if Seattle’s SSA Marine gets its way.

The company has filed several permit applications with Whatcom County.

At the same time, the County held a meeting in Bellingham, aimed at helping anti-coal activists most effectively register their concerns. 

As the North Sound Baykeeper at Bellingham’s RESources for Sustainable Communities, Matt Krough has been keeping an eye on plans for the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. He doesn't like what he's seen so far.

“The proposal that we have on the books shows an 80-acre pile of coal, about 80 feet high," Krough says. "It’s uncovered, it’s exposed to the winds. And they’ll be putting it right next to the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.”

He says that alone is enough to want to stop it. But the proposal also has up to 18 huge trains a day rumbling in and out of Bellingham, and across the state. 

Activists say with loads that can extend a mile and a half long, the trains will create traffic nightmares and leave toxic coal dust and diesel exhaust in their wake. They’ve banded together with other environmental groups including the well-known Sierra Club to form a coalition, called “Power Past Coal.” They say they want a thorough and fair environmental impact statement.

“Our goal is absolutely to stop this coal export proposal all together," Krough says. "This one, the one in Longview, there’s another one in the Port of Morrow.”

That’s Port of Morrow, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, near the Tri-cities.

SSA Marine and other companies like it say their proposed export terminals  would create thousands of jobs and generate millions in tax and other revenues. Many public officials have looked favorably on those goals.

But the outcry from the public has caught the attention of authorities in charge of the proposal’s environmental review. Tyler Schroeder, a planning supervisor with Whatcom County, says they called a special meeting to explain in depth how and when people can best register their concerns. He says the next few months will be crucial.

“We anticipate scoping to start late Spring, early summer," he said, specifying June or early July. "And that’ll be a really important step in the process for the public to be involved in.”

Schroeder says the more specific the comments, the better. They can influence the content of the environmental impact statement, which will be key as state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources and Ecology issue leases and permits that would enable the proposal to go forward.


Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.