November 3, 2012 8:46:21 PM
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- The progressive college town of Bellingham, Wash., is known for its stunning scenery, access to the outdoors and eclectic mix of aging hippies, students and other residents.
But lately it's turned into a battleground in the debate over whether the Pacific Northwest should become the hub for exporting U.S. coal to Asia.
Five ports proposed for Washington and Oregon could ship as much as 140 million tons of coal, mostly from the Rockies, where it could travel by rail through communities such as Spokane, Seattle and Eugene, Ore., before being loaded onto ships bound for Asia.
The Cherry Point marine terminal would be the largest coal-export port in the U.S., exporting up to 54 million tons of bulk commodities, mostly coal.
Hundreds packed a public hearing in Bellingham last week to tell regulators what should be analyzed during the environmental review process.
Environmentalists, some Northwest tribes and others want regulators to study the cumulative effects all five projects: increased train traffic, carbon emissions from burning coal overseas and other health and environmental concerns.
Project supporters say it's not practical to lump the projects together. Only some ports will be built, they say, and each has different circumstances.
Several union leaders and some lawmakers say the region can't afford to turn down well-paying jobs.
The company says the $665 million project will create 1,250 permanent direct and indirect jobs and generate $11 million in tax revenues; critics are skeptical.
"Some groups have demonized a natural resource and they think nobody on the planet should burn this material. I disagree. We need jobs," said Mike Elliott, chairman of the state's Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
Trains already carry coal from the Rockies through the state for export through British Columbia. But Bellingham resident Lynn Berman and others fear the increase in coal shipments -- about nine mile-long trains a day -- could threaten fisheries, create health problems and foul the area's natural resources.