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Keeping Voters Up to Speed on Coal Shipping Plans

PHOTO: A train loaded with coal on the Bellingham tracks, near homes and Boulevard Park. Photo credit: Paul K. Anderson
PHOTO: A train loaded with coal on the Bellingham tracks, near homes and Boulevard Park. Photo credit: Paul K. Anderson
August 23, 2012

BELLINGHAM, Wash. - The process for putting a new rail shipping terminal on the Washington coast isn't exactly clipping along like a fast-moving train. It could take years to do the environmental studies and more years to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal now proposed for Whatcom County. In the meantime, citizens' groups are trying to keep the issue top-of-mind for residents of the area.

The League of Women Voters (LWV) of Bellingham/Whatcom County and League of Women Voters of Snohomish County have taken on the challenge. Members have organized meetings, hosted a radio talk show about the terminal project and are planning a postcard campaign.

Bellingham/Whatcom County LWV co-president Jayne Freudenberger says they want the public to have the same opportunities to weigh in as SSA Marine, the terminal developer, has had.

"SSA has been working with the county, as most applicants do, to get their permits up. People think, 'Well, shoot, they've had the ear of the county and the planning department for three years now!' What we want to do is make sure that the citizens have a chance to speak."

With hearing dates, studies, announcements and deadlines - and often months between them - it's easy for people to miss something, says Michelle Valentine, president of Snohomish County LWV. To help them sort it all out, she says, the Bellingham-Whatcom League is posting information online as it becomes available.

"This will stimulate people to understand the complexities of the issue, as well as get them feeling more prepared to show up for a public hearing or to make a comment in writing."

Valentine points out that the League is nonpartisan but does take stands on some issues.

SSA Marine also has a website where it compiles information in favor of the port expansion, touting the potential jobs and tax revenues.

A vessel traffic study is now under way. Freudenberger says it should be included in the environmental impact scoping process for the project.

"We think the train impacts need to be studied across the state, not just impacts at the site itself. We think the water, the Salish Sea, is particularly important because we're going to have about 500 new trips by vessels coming into this place. There are a lot of issues besides just the site."

League of Women Voters members took part in discussions for a new terminal in the late 1990s, long before the push to increase coal shipments through the Northwest. The project raised concerns about potential damage to marine life and wasn't built.

LWV information is available at The SSA site is

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA