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Communities | Environment

Where Coal Divides, Community Remains

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No matter how you feel about climate change or construction jobs or any number of issues bound to the five coal export terminals under consideration around the Northwest, chances are you know someone who feels differently about the issue than you do. For some, the possibility of taking coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin via train to export terminals along the West Coast, to then be shipped to Asian markets, is such an emotional issue that it can no longer be discussed in polite company.

“I just avoid that,” says Ann Jones, a Bellingham resident who supports exporting coal. “I’m just a very neighborly person… and I like to talk to everybody when I walk down the street but I just don’t talk about that.”

Exporting coal via the Northwest has become an issue so divisive that old friendships and alliances strain under the pressure. At the public scoping meetings being held around the region as part of the review process for the Gateway Pacific Terminal — proposed for a site near Bellingham, Wash. -– a grand circus is taking place.

Where once there were civil conversations and questions posed to regulators about environmental impacts, job creation, and human health risks, now there are stump speeches and inflammatory accusations, painted faces and matching T-shirts, gas masks, signs, and other stage props.

These days, Mark Lowry finds himself on one side of coal’s rhetorical divide. Lisa McShane stands across the gulf from him. And yet, the firm friendship between these two longtime Bellingham residents has thus far endured their differences in the debate over the largest coal expert terminal project proposed on the West Coast.

McShane lives in an old house in a modest neighborhood of Bellingham. An aging dog lounges in front of the fire as Lowry arrives for dinner. McShane is an artist and long-time political and environmental activist. Her dinner guest this evening is the head of the Northwestern Washington Labor Council and a bus driver in Bellingham for almost 20 years.

What’s Next

The final two scheduled hearings on the Gateway Pacific scoping process will be held this week in Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.

Vancouver meeting: - 4–7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12- Clark College, Gaiser Student Center- 1933 Fort Vancouver Way

Seattle meeting: - 4-7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13- Washington State Convention Center, Ballroom 6F- 800 Convention Place

“We met through Democratic politics,” McShane says of Lowry as he takes off his coat in the foyer. “We were both on various committees and I’d find myself in meetings with him. We always felt like we had a shared understanding of things.”

The Democratic Party has traditionally been closely aligned with the labor movement – that’s how McShane and Lowry met several years ago – almost always on the same side of policy decisions, like shoreline redevelopment in Bellingham, labor issues, and even the referendum to legalize marijuana.

But not when it comes to the Gateway Pacific Terminal project.

“We have vocally disagreed with one another from the very beginning,” Lowry says. “And yet it has never been a personal disagreement. I’ve never felt demonized. I’ve always felt that we both mutually respect each other’s incorrect view of the world in this kind of thing.” The two chuckle, like old co-conspirators.

Lowry accepts climate change science. He doesn’t believe clean coal exists. He even worries about air pollution coming back to Washington once that American coal is burned in China.

“I am forced by circumstances to look at unsavory alternatives,” he says, “because those are the only alternatives that are presented. I know so many people that are just hanging on.”

Lowry sees the Gateway Pacific Terminal as a potential solution to the loss of blue-collar work in the region. In the early stages of construction it would employ several thousand people.

“There are people out there that need to pack a lunch box with ham sandwiches and put on a hard hat and make an honest living. And we have work for them to do but that requires investment from corporations,” Lowry says. He shakes his head in frustration. “I have a 21-year-old stepson expecting his first child and he works at Sonic. I’m the big labor boss I can’t get him a job as a welder in the trades because there aren’t any jobs.”

Cherry Point, Wash. Locator Map

McShane nods in sympathy.

“I couldn’t agree more,” she says. “But we need a workforce that builds things in Washington state and ships things out. This is not that. This is a conveyor belt of coal. It’s not going to have real jobs that we can get behind.”

For McShane, who worked at Conservation Northwest for 10 years, the marine impacts are at the top of her list of concerns. She worries about the herring that spawn at the nearby Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve and, in turn, are fed on by salmon and other animals, up the chain to the endangered orcas of Puget Sound.

The two friends square off across the dinner table.

“How many jobs will be created?”

“How many jobs will be lost if coal train traffic increases?”

“What are the health risks?”

“What other opportunities are there for work in Whatcom County that can compare to the Gateway Pacific project?”

These are questions that are being asked at the highest levels of the environmental review process for the proposed coal export terminal, but tonight they are being volleyed back and forth over pork tenderloin, squash and sautéed apples and leeks.

Despite hardly a dip or a lull in the conversation, the food disappears. As the apple cobbler joins its pork predecessor and the wine glasses fade to pink with emptiness, the conversation turns to the big picture.

“SSA Marine, Peabody coal, Goldman Sachs. They don’t live here,” McShane says. “And I think it’s unfortunate that they’re able to exert so much influence in our community.”

On this point, the two are firmly in agreement.

“I think there are multiple players injecting millions of dollars into this local fight,” Lowry says, nodding. “They’re attempting to exploit financial interests that have nothing to do with what’s good for this community. We will have to pick up the pieces.”

“And I think it will be up to you and me to make sure they don’t have a negative impact on our community,” McShane responds, without missing a beat.

“And I can’t do it without someone from the other side,” Lowry finishes her thought.

“Deal,” McShane says.

“Deal,” Lowry responds.

There are globally recognized forces at play here -– multinational corporations and Asian countries — eager to buy the coal they can bring to market.

In the coming months, officials on the county, state and federal levels will be weighing in on the coal export debate. It will only get hotter. It will only get more contentious.

But in this living room, on this night, it’s about food and friendship.

(Hover over markers to hear reports on coal in communities of the Northwest. Then click “website” for more EarthFix coverage. Click here for larger map view. Note: Train routes are approximations. They illustrate potential corridors based on existing lines and publicly available information.)

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