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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here on the West Coast there's a battle shaping up over plans to build a giant new coal export terminal. Those are the places coal gets dropped off and then put on ships, in this case to China. Activists want to stop the terminal from being built. NPR's Richard Harris has this story of the fight in Bellingham, Washington.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: If you want to get a sense of what the proposed coal terminal in Bellingham would look like, visit the Westshore Terminal just across the border in British Columbia. Trains a mile-and-a-half long rumble into this port, day and night and snake into a large building. There the trains roll onto a device that tips the coal cars over with the ease of a five-year-old playing with a toy train.

DENIS HORGAN: This is a double dumper, so it'll know it's two cars in one.

HARRIS: Denis Horgan is vice president and general manager of Westshore Terminals. Most of the trains haul Canadian coal, but more and more the trains are arriving from Wyoming and Montana, loaded with coal that will be burned in Asia to make electricity. We follow the coal from the dumping station up to open conveyor belts. Some of it gets piled up in giant stacks, and some gets trundled over to a waiting ship. This coal is going into a ship called Cape Australia, which has some Chinese characters on it.

HORGAN: It's actually going to Thailand.

HARRIS: We dodge and weave around some construction crews who are upgrading this facility. Right now, coal dust can fly off the open conveyors and blow into the sea.

HORGAN: We've embarked upon a very heavy duty solution here. It's about a $5 million project to contain any dust that might come off.

HARRIS: Even with decades with open conveyors spreading coal dust, there is surprising marine life just offshore.

HORGAN: You see all those red buoys out there in the water?

HARRIS: Yeah.

HORGAN: Crab traps. There's a lot of salmon in the water out here. We get - you see orcas going by.

HARRIS: The dusty coal piles also need to be managed so they don't simply burst into flames - spontaneous combustion.

HORGAN: The best way to deal with spontaneous combustion is either to compact the product or really turn it over quickly. And that's what we're trying to do.

HARRIS: At the end of our quick driving tour around the artificial island, Horgan asks me to roll up my window so we can drive through the onsite car wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPRAYING)

HORGAN: I don't think it was a smart move to have a white truck in a coal terminal, but the price was right.

HARRIS: And coal dust still clings to the van even after it runs through the washer. Coal is a dirty business - the mining, the handling and ultimately the burning. And that is all very much on the minds of people 35 miles across the border in Bellingham, Washington. Beautiful day.

STEVE MCMINN: Yeah, it's a good day.

HARRIS: Steve McMinn has come to this lovely waterfront park with his wife, Julie Trimingham. The park is sandwiched between the shoreline and the railroad tracks that run right through town. Trimingham's family goes back generations in Bellingham, and now for the first time she finds herself stepping up as a community activist, opposing a proposed coal-export terminal up the coast at the industrial site of Cherry Point. She's concerned about impacts on the immediate environment of the terminal, but she's also worried about the inevitable increase in train traffic through town.

JULIE TRIMINGHAM: There would be a train on the tracks at least once every hour, day and night. So there's the noise, there's the pollution - the diesel particulate matter - and emergency vehicle response time. We're not sure how the intensified rail usage will affect businesses who are on the wrong side of the tracks or close to the tracks.

HARRIS: And it just seems like a wrong fit for this progressive college town on sparkling Puget Sound.

TRIMINGHAM: It's almost inconceivable that there would be a plan afoot to change this part of the world into a coal export facility. It seems ironic or cruel, or misguided at best.

HARRIS: And it's not just about quality of life - it's about the future of the planet. But the reality is there's no other way to engage in global environmental issues like coal exports without focusing on the local impacts. After all, it is perfectly legal to dig up coal, transport it thousands of miles by rail and ship, and burn it for electricity. But climate change is pretty far down on the list of concerns they bring up in their community.

MCMINN: Global warming is an issue that most people aren't very interested in. People are interested in their own lives.

HARRIS: So Steve McMinn knows this is where think global, act local comes into play.

MCMINN: We both think that the rail corridor is the place to stop it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)

HARRIS: At the moment, the train line through town is usually a minor inconvenience - a throwback to the days when Bellingham was an industrial town. They actually mined coal nearby and shipped it off to power plants. Mayor Dan Pike meets me at another waterfront park near the tracks. He says he wants to move his city beyond its industrial era. The coal terminal doesn't fit that new image.

MAYOR DAN PIKE: There are some folks advocating for it because, like a lot of communities, we really could use some good jobs. But we're also a community that's built a reputation over the last few decades as a place that values sustainability. And there are few things that are anti-sustainability as clearly as coal is.

HARRIS: These days the Bellingham waterfront is dotted with sailboat marinas. The city is planning to turn 200 acres of old industrial development into a huge waterfront attraction. Pike says having trains rumble right past is hardly a draw for tourists.

PIKE: Beyond that, because of our reputation as a place that values sustainability, we've had a lot of businesses in the last years that choose to locate here because of that reputation. And again, things that damage that reputation damage our economic viability as a community.

HARRIS: Mayor Pike is pitted against labor unions, who welcome the construction jobs and the few hundred high-paying jobs that would eventually result at the terminal. Proponents also include Peabody Energy, which would mine the coal for export; Warren Buffet, who owns the railway that would carry the coal; and SSA Marine, which runs ports around the world and wants to build this one. Bob Watters, in the Seattle office of SSA Marine, says the terminal will be much more environmentally sensitive than the one in British Columbia. For one thing, all the conveyor belts will be covered and the coal piles will be fenced off from the wind.

BOB WATTERS: We're going to have a buffer over a half a mile that our storage is even going to be away from the water.

HARRIS: Besides, he says if the locals do block the terminal - which, incidentally, could also ship other bulk commodities - that wouldn't necessarily stop the train traffic.

WATTERS: It's still going to go on the rain. If it's going to Canada, it's going to continue to go on the same rail traffic that it's going now. The question is, will Canada reap the benefits of the jobs and the tax revenues? Or, if we built our facility and we can get the coal to export through Cherry Point, then Whatcom County can generate the jobs and the tax revenues.

HARRIS: The project is now embarking on a multi-year environmental review, and will ultimately be put to a vote of the Whatcom County commissioners. Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we look at what a big increase in coal exports could mean for global carbon emissions and American utility bills. And at our website you can explore how a coal terminal in Vancouver works from train to ship. We've also got photos of Bellingham. You can see them at NPR.org/Science.

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