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Coal opponents outnumber proponents at Seattle hearing

It was one of the biggest outpourings of environmental activism that Seattle has seen since the WTO protests more than a decade ago.

At Freeway Park, a giant balloon shaped like an asthma inhaler floated above a sea of red shirts and banners from the Sierra Club. There was also a giant salmon puppet accompanied by schools of ailing herring and a sad-looking polar bear. And a white-haired lady dressed like Santa held a sign that said, "SAVE MY NORTH POLE." 

After a count of three, a simple rally cry pierced the air outside the Washington State Trade and Convention Center in downtown Seattle: "No more coal!"

Hundreds of supporters and opponents of a plan to ship coal through Western Washington had gathered for a rally outside the Washington State Convention center, prior to Thursday afternoon's final public hearing on the issue. 

Under consideration is a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point, near Bellingham. If it’s built, critics say as many 18 mile-long trains per day could haul open cars full of coal from Wyoming and Montana through the region, bringing environmental ruin with them.

Among the worries are coal’s contribution to global warming, as well as potential harm to air quality and ocean health.

Ranchers from Montana, moms from Burien and Olympia, Members of the Tulalip and Lummi tribes and Seattle’s Raging Grannies all turned out to voice their concerns.     

“We have lots of greener choices...fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la...stop the coal and raise our voices!” went their refrain.

Chris Wilke, with the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, says people who support the proposal because of its economic potential are being shortsighted.

“It’s being sold as a good deal for the people of Washington, but really it’s a bad deal for the health of Puget sound and the health of our global climate and everybody else along the way,” Wilke said.

Inside the convention center, a lottery determined which 150 of the several thousand assembled got to speak. A restrained crowd waved their signs in approval and refrained from cheering for messages they liked, as per official protocol for the hearing.

12-year-old Rachel Howell, from Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill neighborhood, showed up in her soccer uniform and got lucky.  After her number was called, she said it’s not fair to put the burden of global warming on her generation – and building the coal export terminal would make it worse.

"It's really pretty simple and even I can understand it, " the middle-schooler said, drawing laughs from an otherwise quiet crowd. "If you make more coal available, more people will burn it and that will cause more global warming. Please don’t build these coal export terminals. It’s just not fair to my generation.”

Besides the red shirts in the crowd, there were also green shirts, distributed by backers of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. And many of them were also younger than the average age in the crowd. 25-year-old Raven Mullins is a union ironworker with Local 86 in Seattle. She said she’s supporting the proposed terminal plan, because it would bring badly needed jobs and revenue to the region.

“It’s gonna be built somewhere. So, build it in America where it’s going to be regulated and where we have I think the highest regulations against pollution,” she said, adding that she agreed with the sentiment of the majority at the hearing that the coal companies are some of the worst polluters out there.

But like the others in her camp of opinion, she feels the United States should harness and control the coal industry to the extent possible, and bring tough penalties against any harm it does to the environment.

The Seattle hearing was the last of seven on scoping. Written comments can still be submitted through January 21st. They’ll be used for the first draft of the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, which federal and state agencies say will take at least a year to put together. 

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.
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