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.
In this photo taken Oct. 23, a ship is seen in the distance moored at the BP oil refinery in the Strait of Georgia just beyond the location of a proposed coal exporting terminal in Ferndale, Wash., near Bellingham, Wash. The progressive college town of Bellingham is at the center of one of the fiercest environmental debates in the region: should the Northwest become a hub for exporting U.S. coal to Asia?
With so much at stake, critics and supporters have intensified their pitches in recent weeks, running TV and radio spots, doorbelling homes and turning to phone banks and social media to rally support for their side.
Hundreds packed a public hearing in Bellingham last week to tell regulators what should be analyzed during the environmental review process. Hearings in Seattle, Vancouver and Spokane are also expected to draw crowds.
"This flies in the face about what are we about as a region, as far as our leadership on building a clean economy and saying no to coal. We're seen as a region that leads with innovation," said Kimberly Larson, with the Power Past Coal campaign. "Are we going backward or forward?"
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.
"Most of the people who are proposing that just view it as an opportunity to grind everything to a halt," said Craig Cole, a spokesman for developer Seattle-based SSA Marine. "We are expecting a very full review of the impacts of this project."
Even as environmental reviews have started for three coal-export projects at Cherry Point, Port of Morrow, Ore., and Longview Wash., the Army Corps of Engineers hasn't decided whether it'll conduct a broader environmental review for all the projects.
"We haven't made that determination yet," said corps spokeswoman Michael Coffey. "We're not saying yes and we're not saying no either."
Two other projects are proposed in Oregon at Coos Bay and St. Helens. Another in Grays Harbor County, Wash., was shelved over the summer, after the developer decided to explore other terminal uses.
Meanwhile, a trade group that includes the three largest U.S. coal producers has been running TV and newspaper ads to tout jobs, tax revenues and other economic benefits.
"We feel that someone is going to supply the coal to the ports that need it. ... The question is: where is that coal going to come from?" said Lauri Hennessey, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, which includes BNSF Railway and companies such as Peabody Coal, Arch Coal and Ambre Energy with stakes in the Northwest projects. "That coal can be sent through Washington and Oregon ports in a way that's environmentally responsible."