CORRECTS Mark Lowry's title and affiliation:
MOUNT VERNON — If red means stop and green means go, the sentiment at Monday’s public comment meeting on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal was in big, bold, capital letters: “STOP.”
About 1,000 people packed into McIntyre Hall, their matching shirts forming a red sea in the auditorium seats and balcony.
Monday was Mount Vernon’s turn in a series of seven events to gather public comment on the scope of the upcoming environmental impact statement for the proposed terminal project.
The three-hour meeting allowed 75 people to speak for two minutes each. Although most expressed grave concerns about the proposed terminal’s potential impacts on the environment, human health, traffic and local economies, some supporters spoke up, as well.
“We need the jobs,” said Rick Poitras, a business representative for a carpenters’ union and one of the few attendees in green shirts supporting the project. “We need the tax dollars coming into our community.”
Poitras lives four miles from the proposed site at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. He said he is worried about the 30 percent unemployment rate in the construction industry and hopes the jobs created to build the terminal would lead to other jobs and growth in the region.
“This will put 2,000 men and women back to work on a union scale,” said Mark Lowry, president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council. “It’s hard to overemphasize what the impact of that will be.”
But many at the meeting disputed the economic impact. While terminal proponents touted living wages and tax revenue, opponents worried about small businesses near the tracks losing customers — and, thus, jobs and tax revenue.
“Many small communities strive to stay active and vibrant, and this is going to have nothing but negative impact,” said Brad Whaley, who owns a business near the tracks. “So when we talk about job creation, let’s talk about negative job loss.”
More important than money to many commenters, however, was health.
Dr. Erin Charles, a pediatrician at Skagit Valley Hospital, brought her 5-year-old daughter to the podium as she pleaded with state Department of Ecology representatives to consider the health impacts of breathing coal dust and diesel particulates coming from the trains.
Railroad crossings also came up frequently at the meeting, whether due to safety concerns around the tracks or increased wait times and traffic. The thought of emergency-response vehicles waiting for 1.5-mile-long trains to pass scared many commenters.
With 18 additional trains per day, either road traffic waits longer at crossings or finds ways to bypass them. But while they agreed the latter option was better, many speakers, including La Conner Mayor Ramon Hayes, argued their cities shouldn’t have to pay to mitigate the traffic impacts.
“Infrastructure is hugely expensive, and the cost will be borne by the local governments and state government — in other words, the taxpayers,” said Ginny Darvill, who lives south of the Mount Vernon city limits.
In fact, when it came to all the impacts of the proposed terminal — ecologic, economic, medical and more — several commenters called on the project’s corporate backers to compensate them if the terminal is built.
SSA Marine senior vice president Bob Watters did not submit comments at Monday’s meeting, but said his company would comply with the findings of the EIS and mitigate where impacts could not be eliminated.
“A lot of people are seeing this as an either/or proposition. We don’t see it that way,” he said. “We can develop family-wage jobs, union jobs, and be good stewards of the environment. We have to.”
Bow resident Kate Bowers called on SSA Marine, Peabody Coal and Goldman Sachs, all of which have some financial interest in the project, to pay a $50 billion damage deposit up front to the communities along the trains’ route. This proposal drew cheers and applause from the crowd, who had until then been merely waving their hands and “Power Past Coal” signs in support of others’ comments so as not to disrupt the meeting.
Less boisterous were Poitras and another green-shirted attendee, who sat through the entire meeting in the front row next to a sign that said, “Power past fear-mongering. Support progress!”
Once the scoping period closes Jan. 21, it will be up to the co-lead agencies to decide whether commenters’ fears are founded, and what progress costs.