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Paid Temps Do the Waiting So Coal Backers Don’t Have To

Dec. 5, 2012 | KUOW
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Ashley Ahearn

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  • Supporters and opponents of a coal export facility proposed near Bellingham, Wash. have lined up for hours to speak at meetings, including this one last month in Mount Vernon, Wash. A supporters group has paid temps to wait on behalf of its members. credit: Katie Campbell
  • Coal on trains like this one in Wyoming could be hauling their payloads to a proposed export terminal near Bellingham, Wash. It's one of five such shipping centers proposed in the Northwest. credit: Katie Campbell
Supporters and opponents of a coal export facility proposed near Bellingham, Wash. have lined up for hours to speak at meetings, including this one last month in Mount Vernon, Wash. A supporters group has paid temps to wait on behalf of its members. | credit: Katie Campbell | rollover image for more

SEATTLE — An organization that wants the West Coast’s largest coal export terminal built near Bellingham, Wash., has been hiring temp workers to queue up for hours in advance of public hearings.

The tactic has ensured that export terminal backers get to testify while others are turned away from the microphones. But a federal agency insists it won’t be the same story next week in Seattle and Vancouver, Wash., where hearings continue on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.

The meetings on the Gateway Pacific Terminal have been underway in Washington since late October. They’ve drawn as many as 1,000 people. At each event, people wait in line to get numbered cards. Usually between 75 and 100 cards are given out. Then, one after another, people can stand before the crowd and make 2-minute statements about the proposed project.

These “scoping meetings” are being held around the region to let the public ask questions and offer suggestions about what should be considered in the review.

If it’s built, the Gateway Pacific Terminal would be large enough to export up to 48 million tons of coal per year. It’s one of five such projects proposed in the Northwest so coal from Montana and Wyoming can be trained or barged to ocean-going vessels and shipped to Asia.

What’s Next

The final two scheduled meetings will be held next 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

The Spokesman Review reported that backers of the Gateway Pacific Terminal paid temporary workers to stand in line and hold spots for speakers at the public meeting held in Spokane Tuesday night. EarthFix confirmed the same practice was employed at last week’s hearing in Ferndale, Wash.

“Yes it’s true that we hired people to help with the event including standing in line,” said Gary Smith of Smith and Stark. The communications firm in Seattle is promoting the Gateway Pacific Terminal project. “It was something that we learned that we had to do.”

Smith said that at the first scoping meetings held in Bellingham, Friday Harbor, and Mount Vernon, the opponents to the coal export terminal had arrived first and taken the majority of numbered cards before supporters got there.

If that’s true, they were never paid to do so, says Krista Collard, a Sierra Club employee working on the Power Past Coal campaign.

“We have never paid anyone to stand in line and hold a spot,” she said.

The groups opposing the coal export facility said they have had up to three full-time staff members stand in line to hold spots for speakers but have never paid temps to hold spots.

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the public meetings, confirmed that the Corps had heard that people were being paid to stand in line.

“It has been brought to our attention and our intent for the next two meetings is to ensure that the people who are standing in line are the people who are speaking,” she said.

So, the message to both supporters and opponents of the coal export project is clear: no more place-holding at the upcoming meetings – paid or not.

Graesser says that as the debate over coal exports heats up, the Corps is hoping to maintain order.

“Our intent is to keep our meetings safe and respectful for everyone who’s involved and provide as best opportunity as we can for people to provide input about the scope.”

Comments about the Gateway Pacific Project can also be submitted online or delivered in person to the Army Corps.

Go behind the scenes on our coal export public meetings coverage in this week’s EarthFix podcast:

© 2012 KUOW
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