"Some groups have demonized a natural resource and they think nobody on the planet should burn this material. I disagree. We need jobs," said Mike Elliott, chairman of the state's Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
Trains already carry coal from the Rockies through the state for export through British Columbia. But Bellingham resident Lynn Berman and others fear the increase in coal shipments — about nine mile-long trains a day — could threaten fisheries, create health problems and foul the area's natural resources.
"It's such a bad idea," said Berman, who worked the phone bank one afternoon in the field office in downtown Bellingham set up by ReSources, a local group that has been organizing against the project. "I think it will impact everyone in this community."
Volunteers have made 32,000 phone calls and hope to make tens of thousands more to educate people about the project, said Matt Petryni, Power Past Coal Campaign organizer. The Sierra Club is also running TV ads in Eastern Washington to warn of risks. It has plans to run more ads statewide and in Oregon.
The Cherry Point area is noted for extensive herring spawning grounds. It's also known burial grounds for the Lummi Nation. The tribe recently came out against the project.
"We do not want any further disturbance," said Jewell James, who manages the tribe's sovereignty and treaty protection office. "It's also a treaty rights issue. This always has been a major fishing and harvesting site for our fishermen."
On a recent afternoon, SSA Marine's Cole pointed to the site, near marine terminals for two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter. "This site has been intended for this purpose," said Cole, a former Whatcom County Councilman. He said the company plans to follow the highest environmental standards.
"The hoops that the company has to jump through are very extraordinary. They're really high. You have to prove that you can avoid impacts, minimize them or mitigate them," Cole said.
But neighbors and others who gathered in Cindy Franklin's living room for a letter-writing workshop that same afternoon weren't so sure.
"I'm afraid that this new race to get all this coal out of the ground, sell it under the guise of energy independence ... is going to destroy our atmosphere," said Franklin, 59, retired business consultant and environmental activist. "It's about the burning of the coal being a major contributor to climate change. We need to do all we can to stop this."