Updated Friday, December 14, 2012 at 10:33 AM
They came carrying drums and American flags, decked out in soccer gear and cowboy hats and divided themselves by the color of their shirts.
More than 2,300 people packed two rooms at the Washington State Convention Center on Thursday to tell government officials what they thought about plans to export coal from Rocky Mountain states through ports in the Northwest.
The hearing, sponsored by Whatcom County, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was the last of several around the region. It asked the public what issues should be studied when the government kicks off an environmental review next month of plans to ship 48 million tons of coal to Asia through a terminal at Cherry Point outside Ferndale in Whatcom County.
Supporters indicated study should focus only on that one terminal.
"Should the Cherry Point site be scrutinized? Absolutely," said Shahraim Allen, chair of the Washington State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, who, like many coal-terminal supporters, wore a green shirt. "Should the impact on Puget Sound be studied? Without a doubt. But that is where the studies should stop."
But with the vast majority of the crowd and speakers decked out in red anti-coal shirts, discussion often centered on more than just the so-called Gateway Pacific Terminal. It included concerns about the ecological risks of other proposed Northwest coal ports, from the Oregon side of the Columbia River to southwest Washington.
If all those terminals were built, they would ship more than 140 million tons of coal a year to China and elsewhere, making the Northwest the country's largest exporter of the fossil fuel.
Speakers worried about health risks from diesel fumes and coal dust or from the pollutants that would waft across the Pacific Ocean when the coal was burned in China, India or some place else. A Muslim woman spoke about how her faith urged care for the planet. A cowboy who drove straight from his Montana ranch complained about having to drive so far to be heard. One speaker sang a dirge, another banged a drum and a group of grandmothers testified in jingles.
"Oh we're a gaggle of grannies, urging you off of your fannies," they sang during their testimony. "We're raising our voice, we need a new choice: no more coal."
Rachel Howell, a 12-year-old Queen Anne girl, said adults already were destroying much of what she loved from her home state, from salmon and oysters to the skiing at Snoqualmie Pass, which is threatened by a warming planet.
"This is the future you're creating for us if you let these terminals be built," she said, earning shouts and whistles and applause from a crowd that repeatedly had been urged to keep its responses silent. "It's pretty simple. Even I can understand it."
A similar sentiment was offered by 13-year-old Will Priest. The eighth-grader at Islander Middle School on Mercer Island said that in 50 years he may have grandchildren.
"And I hope to not have to explain to them why our leaders let coal be taken out from the ground in Montana and put on long trains past our beautiful rivers and along our Puget Sound then shipped across the ocean," he said.
The day started with dueling rallies and news conferences, as coal supporters, including the head of the Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce, several labor groups and mayors, urged the government and public to get beyond emotion and look at the specifics of the Gateway project, which they said would provide jobs that otherwise would go elsewhere.
"It's often hard to argue facts versus philosophy," said David Freiboth, with the King County Labor Council.
One longtime railroad worker said coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming contains far less sulfur and other pollutants than coal from overseas. And that's where Asia will turn to meet its needs, he said, if the coal doesn't come from the U.S.
Larry Brown, legislative director for a local aerospace-machinists union, said increasing trade boosts the economy across the state.
"Washington is a trade state, and when the state expands trade across the Pacific ... it benefits all Washingtonians," he said.
At a far larger rally outside sponsored by environmentalists, which included giant salmon, a fake polar bear and an inflatable giant hand holding an inhaler, speakers urged the government to look at the cumulative impacts of coal.
Jeremiah Julius, a Lummi tribal leader, worried about the desecration of sacred burial grounds near the site of the terminal.
A Tulalip leader worried about increased ship traffic, which could cause a spill from existing oil tankers or an accident with a tanker-load of coal. Earlier this month, a bulk carrier just across the border in British Columbia smashed into a coal-terminal conveyor, causing a coal spill.
"We can do better," said King County Executive Dow Constantine.
The crowds then filed into two rooms at the convention center, where speakers were selected by lottery. Two moderators tried to silence hooting, clapping and hissing and urged the audience to show its support by quietly waving signs or their hands. The discourse remained largely respectful.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn asked the Army Corps to evaluate impacts from coal trains that would travel through the city's poorer communities, slowing street traffic, potentially spewing dust and perhaps harming water quality.
A retired environmental engineer from the Environmental Protection Agency urged the agency to consider ocean impacts from the carbon dioxide that gets taken up by the seas when coal eventually is burned in Asia.
The testimony was often one-sided. The first two dozen speakers in one room, were, to a person, opposed to coal exports.
One opponent, Janice Tufte, said she agreed with supporters that a terminal would bring more jobs — for respiratory therapists to deal with health problems from coal dust and train exhaust, and for consultants to help repair environmental damage.
"At the end of the day, I believe God buried coal for a reason," said the Rev. Peter Illyn, of Longview. "We need to leave it there."
But there was at least some back and forth. When a fisherman complained about diesel exhaust from coal trains, a locomotive engineer later testified that fishing boats produce similar exhaust from similar engines.
A green-shirted Nicole Grant, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said that with so much of the world still powered by coal, her workers need the good-paying, coal-related jobs, which could lead to stronger families and the kind of "education that leads to innovation and energy."
"Our electricians would be just as happy to install solar and wind, but at this time that's a minority of how power is generated in the world," she said.
She was followed by another union speaker, a red-shirted Allison Ostrer, an interpreter with the Washington Federation of State Employees, who said Grant hit on exactly the problem. Unions, Ostrer said, shouldn't settle for coal work but instead should demand corporations bring more clean-energy jobs.
The three government agencies overseeing the hearing will continue to accept written testimony until mid-January. Then they will start an environmental review that could take up to two years.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093
Information about the proposed Gateway Pacific terminal: ecy.wa.gov/geographic/gatewaypacific
To comment online: eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/get-involved/online-scoping-meeting
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
In front of a large, inflatable hand holding an inhaler with the words "Big coal makes us sick," Karen McFadden, of Kenmore, left, and Toni Potter, of Lake Forest Park, listen to speakers during a rally at Seattle's Freeway Park protesting the proposed coal trains running through Seattle to Cherry Point near Bellingham.
GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A coal train heads northbound along the Seattle waterfront Thursday afternoon.
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Speakers at the public hearing at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle were selected by lottery. The audience was urged to show its support by quietly waving signs or their hands.