Where Coal Divides, Community Remains

Dec 12, 2012

The largest coal export facility on the West coast is proposed to be built near Bellingham, WA. Some people see it as an opportunity to create jobs. Others worry about the potential environmental impacts of dusty coal trains and climate change. It’s an issue that’s dividing communities around the Northwest.

EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn went to Bellingham, Washington to visit one community at the center of the coal export debate.

Lisa McShane and Mark Lowry are long-time Bellingham residents and friends. They disagree on the issue of exporting coal but they're still talking about it.
Credit Photo by Ashley Ahearn

If you stand in Ann Jones’ driveway and throw a rock you could hit a passing train.

Jones: “The train is right up there. You just walk right up this, maybe one story high.

Trains like this one come by a few times a day. Some of them carry containers full of goods, some carry grains and some carry coal bound for export to Asia.

Jones’ whole neighborhood is nestled between the tracks and the waterfront south of Bellingham. Look one way and you see the train. Turn around and all you can see is rocky Washington coastline.

Jones doesn’t mind the trains. In fact, she’d like to see the Gateway Pacific coal export facility built. She says the state needs the tax revenue and jobs it would provide.

But that’s not a view all her neighbors share.

Jones stands on her deck and points to the house next door.

Jones: "This neighbor is very very – she very deeply believes in all the Sierra Club's projects and concerns and she comes over and talks to me and she has a no coal dust sign on her car. I just avoid that. I’m just a very neighborly person as you can probably imagine by talking to me and I like to talk to everybody when I walk down the street but I just don’t talk about that."

Talking about an issue this divisive may not be easy but there are some who aren’t willing to give up yet.

Ahearn: "I’m walking up the street, Grant Street in Bellingham, where Lisa McShane lives and she and Mark Lowry and I are going to have dinner and talk about coal exports. They’re old friends but now they’re on opposite sides of the issue."

And you can hear the train in the background.

McShane: "Hey welcome. Can I take your coat? Have you met Sam before? She’s really shy."

Lisa’s old dog comes to the door to greet Mark when he arrives.

Mark Lowry is the head of the Northwest Washington Labor Council. He has been a bus driver in Bellingham for almost 20 years. Lisa McShane is an artist and worked for Conservation Northwest for 10 years.

They met through local Democratic politics.

McShane: “We were both on various committees and I’d find myself in meetings with him and he was the one I’d agree with. We always felt like we had a shared understanding of things.”

The two worked together on local shoreline redevelopment plans, labor issues – they even agreed on the referendum to legalize marijuana.

But when it comes to the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which could be built near Bellingham…

Lowry: " …we have vocally disagreed with one another from the very beginning and yet I’ve always felt that we both mutually respect each other’s incorrect view of the world in this kind of thing."

Mark represents the side of labor. Labor traditionally has allied with the Democratic party, often fighting against big corporations.

But in this situation, with coal exports, labor sees big corporations as job creators.

If companies like SSA Marine and Peabody Energy are allowed to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal Mark sees more blue collar work.

That being said, he wishes it wasn’t coal that was being exported and he does not deny that burning coal contributes to climate change.

Lowry: “I am forced, by circumstances, to look at unsavory alternatives because those are the only alternatives that are presented. We’re seeing families break up, people losing houses, and we have work for them to do but that requires investment from corporations."

McShane: "I couldn’t agree more. We need a workforce that builds things in WA state and ships things out. This is not that. This is a conveyor belt of coal. It’s not going to have real jobs that we can all get behind."

Lisa worries about how the coal terminal and coal ships will impact the marine environment here. She’s also worried about climate change and coal train traffic.

But right now, everyone’s hungry.

McShane: “We are having pancetta wrapped roast pork loin, pureed butternut squash and sautéed apples, pears and leeks.”

Lowry: “I love the squash. I can never get enough squash.”

As the food disappears the conversation turns to the sense of community these two share.

Lowry: “There are multiple players injecting millions of dollars into a local fight that prejudices both sides of this issue and they’re exploiting a lot of things, both interests are, both at the local community’s expense."

McShane: “And I think it will be up to you and me to make sure they don’t have a negative impact on our community.

Lowry: “And we have a moral obligation to see that happen. And I can’t do it without someone from the other side…. We will have to pick up the pieces.”

McShane: “Deal.”

Lowry: “Deal.”

As the dishes are cleared away Lisa hands Mark his coat.

Lowry: "I look forward to pizza night. I’ll bring the wine."

McShane: "Maybe in a couple of weeks."

Lowry: "Bye bye now."

There are globally recognized forces at play here – multinational corporations and Asian countries eager to buy the coal they can bring to market.

There are four other coal terminals being considered in the Northwest.

In the coming months, officials on the county, state and federal levels will be weighing in on the coal export debate. And the debate will only get hotter. It will only get more contentious.

But in this living room, on this night, it’s about food and friendship.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio