A proposal to ship coal through Seattle by rail drew hundreds of opponents and supporters to downtown on Thursday, as both sidesattended a public hearing at the Seattle Convention Center.
About 2300 people showed up for the hearing, filling two different rooms. The vast majority were opposed to the proposal. So many people showed up, organizers used a lottery to determine who got to speak publicly during the 3-hour hearing.
One opponent flew in from Montana to express his concerns, but -- like all other speakers -- he was only given two minutes to share his thoughts.
Several hundred opponents, many wearing red T-shirts, staged an outdoor protest at Freeway Park near the Convention Center, voicing concerns about coal's contribution to global warming and the impact to the Puget Sound's ecosystem from a potential coal spill.
Supporters, led by labor unions representing construction trades, gathered at the Convention Center in green shirts. They said coal shipments will require expanded port facilities, which will boost jobs in the region. Representatives of the Association of Washington Businesses also support the shipments.
The Seattle hearing was moved to the state convention center because it can accommodate 3,500 people. About 650 people attended a Wednesday night hearing in Vancouver and hundreds more attended recent meetings in Spokane, Ferndale, Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Friday Harbor.
The $600 million Gateway Pacific Project proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle at Cherry Point is the largest of five proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to power plants in Asia. The terminal could handle up to 54 million bulk tons a year. It could handle other bulk cargo, such as grain. Coal trains would pass through Seattle and other Puget Sound communities before reaching Cherry Point.
King County Executive Dow Constantine spoke to opponents, saying he opposed shipping up to 18 trainloads of coal through the city, which he called the county's jewel.
Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen spoke to supporters, saying the coal shipments can be done in an environmentally sound manner.
A representative of the Makah Tribe told opponents that the coal shipments would interfere with sacred grounds and would violate the government's treaty obligations with the sovereign tribe.
Both sides will speak at a public hearing called by local, state and federal agencies charged with completing an environmental impact study. Native American tribal represenatives will be allowed to speak first, but all other speaker slots will be allotted via a lottery -- a recognition of the fact that too many people are attending for all to speak within the three-hours scheduled.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington State Department of Ecology and the Whatcom County Council scheduled the hearings to identify issues to be studied. The public comment period remains open through Jan. 21, and then an environmental impact statement will be drafted.
Other coal export ports are under consideration at Longview and in Oregon at Coos Bay, Port of Morrow and St. Helens. A proposal at Grays Harbor, Wash., has been shelved.
The Associated Press and KING 5's Linda Brill contributed.