Spokane Speaks Out Against Coal Exports
Eight hundred people turned out in Spokane on December 4 to the fifth of seven "scoping hearings" across Washington State on the environmental review process for a proposed coal export facility at Cherry Point, 400 railroad miles to the west on the Washington coast.
"Of the 800 people who came to debate the merits of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, I'd estimate at least 700 were opposed," says Crystal Gartner, a Spokane-based organizer for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "A sea of red 'No Coal Exports' t-shirts dominated the hearing venue."
The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Exports campaign, working as part of the Power Past Coal coalition, has been organizing opposition to the coal export terminal and the vastly increased number of coal trains that would transport coal in open cars from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to the coast.
Over the past year, Sierra Club volunteers and staff in Spokane have gone door-to-door to hundreds of homes, made phone calls to thousands of local residents, and collected over a thousand petition signatures opposing the coal export terminal in advance of the December 4 hearing.
"Spokane is the choke-point for all rail traffic in the Inland Northwest," Gartner says. More than 60 coal trains a day carrying coal in open cars would pass through the city if the coal export terminals now being proposed are built.
Citizens lined up early outside the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center to secure the 100 speaking spots at the hearing. Sierra Club and Power Past Coal volunteers arrived by 7:30 a.m. in cold, rainy weather and waited for more than eight hours to earn the first speaking numbers, which were handed out at 3:45 p.m. for the 4:00 hearing.
"About a third of the 100 speaking spots went to pro-terminal speakers, but most of those spots were reserved by paid line-sitters," says Gartner. As reported in The Spokesman-Review and The Pacific Northwest Inlander, about 30 of the people waiting in line were day laborers who were paid to be there by the pro-coal Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports. A spokesperson for the Alliance said "hiring day laborers is a necessity to combat environmentalists who have been showing up early to hearings."
Paid placeholders were also bussed in from Seattle the previous week for the scoping hearing in Ferndale, the closest town to Cherry Point, where the coal export mega-terminal is proposed to be built. One Ferndale woman who showed up four hours before the hearing reported that as she approached the entrance to get her speaking slot number "a large male supporter of the project blocked [my] way, allowing a number of late-arriving supporters to cut the line." The tactics gave the first 60+ speaking spots to supporters of the export terminal.
Turnout for the Dec. 13 hearing in Seattle is expected to be so large it was moved to the state convention center.
At the Spokane hearing, Sierra Club western regional director Marc Heilison conducted his own tally of export terminal opponents and supporters by counting the green t-shirts that pro-coal people were wearing and the red t-shirts favored by those opposed. "By my count, 720 were opposed and 80 were in favor," Heileson says.
Among those speaking out against the terminal were parents, youth, health professionals, faith leaders, cancer survivors, a senior Spokane County planner, Spokane City Council members, a retired Washington state trooper, and representatives from the Cheyenne, Crow, Spokane, and Yakima Tribes.
City council members from Sandpoint, Idaho, through which the Powder River coal trains would also pass, also voiced opposition to the coal export plan.
"Every single train from the Powder River Basin to the coast will travel through the neighborhoods of Spokane," Heileson says. "Spokane residents showed up today to tell Big Coal that they will not be the sacrifice zone for the Gateway project."
The day after the hearing, Spokane City Council president Ben Stuckart, who spoke out against the terminal and the increased coal-train traffic, told Gartner, "You kicked butt yesterday!"
Gartner, gives a shout-out to Spokane Sierra Club volunteers Laura Ackerman, Dave Bilsland, Carol Bryan, Art Hathaway, Suzi Hokonson, Doug Leonetti, Bob Murphy, and Brooke Nicholson, and fellow Club staffers Heileson, Cesia Kearns, Mike Scott, Krista Collard, and Shane Levy.