By John Stark
Opponents and supporters of the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier packed a meeting in Spokane on Tuesday night to offer their comments and viewpoints on the environmental impact scoping process.
Spokane could potentially get a really big increase in rail traffic if Gateway Pacific and other export terminals are built, because much or all of that coal would likely be routed through the city.
Backers of the terminal acknowledged they paid some people to hold some of the limited number of speaking slots in Spokane. Those slots are given to the first people waiting in line when doors open.
SSA Marine, the company proposing the terminal, did the same thing at the Nov. 29 meeting in Ferndale, SSA spokesman Craig Cole said in an email:
“The long lines and mid-day meetings make it impossible for working people, busy parents, elderly, and the disabled to get a slot to speak. An elderly supporter at Ferndale testified he had stood in line at Bellingham and never got a chance to speak, although he did catch pneumonia instead. We have had many supporters complain that they were being shut out of the process and asked for help in allowing their voices to be heard, especially in greater Whatcom County (the center of which is Ferndale) where support levels are in the majority and the venue is accessible. After we realized that our supporters were being prevented from testifying at earlier meetings, we took a page from the opposition strategy for the Ferndale meeting and had people hold spots in line for supporters wishing to speak. Some were paid temporary event set-up staff (who also handed out t-shirts and other materials and put up signs) and some were volunteers, just like opposition groups are doing.” (end Cole statement)
Another SSA spokesman, Gary Smith, emailed me a video clip in which a man in a tie-dyed shirt is talking to anti-terminal people getting off a bus in Spokane, and informing them he has people holding four places in line for tribal representatives.
Some will see a difference between paying people to stand in line, and having zealous volunteers ready to do it for free.
Former Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike, in a phone chat earlier today, feels that way.
“If you really can’t get folks that you claim are supporting you to show up and help out … then I think that shows something,” Pike said.
Pike also acknowledged that terminal opponents were holding places for other people in line at the Bellingham meeting at Squalicum High School on Oct. 27.
“I was in line and there were people ahead of me holding places for other people,” Pike said.
Pike also observed that the purpose of these meetings is to gather input on the issues that need to be included in the environmental impact statement. While public testimony in front of a microphone is a valuable part of that process, Pike doubts that many issues are in danger of being overlooked at this point, with written comments being submitted by the thousands.
“They probably have 99.9 percent of potential comments already entered,” Pike said.
At this point, opponents and backers of the terminal seem to agree that the process of allocating a limited number of open-mike opportunities has been aggravating.
“Speaking for myself only, I think the method of distributing speaker numbers has been frustrating to people on all sides,” Cole said. “It creates a competitive race to get in line early, and if you snooze, you lose. Without being critical of the agencies that are doing their best to facilitate input, it seems like a lottery system or something like that would be more orderly and equitable.”
Cole also reports that the public agencies, SSA spokesmen and project opponents are talking about what can be done to address the situation at this point.