The railroad employs about 300 people in the area, and many local industries depend on it to ship their products.
BNSF already transports some coal through the Tri-Cities, and the volume might increase substantially if the largest of the five terminals is built. The Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham could export as much as 54 million tons a year at full capacity. That’s double the U.S. coal-export total for all of last year.
Suann Lundsberg, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the railroad would use all three of its main routes across Washington to ship coal. But two of those lines have steep mountain grades, and it’s likely that most of the heavy coal trains would follow an easier path along the Columbia River west from the Tri-Cities.
Opponents are pressing the three agencies that will review the Gateway Pacific project to consider the impacts on every community, from mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to shoreline near the port.
“The reason that we’ve been calling for this is that there’s so many areas impacted,” said Krista Collard, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. “When people learn about this issue, they are solidly in our camp.”
Supporters and opponents have dueled in a series of meetings held by the Washington Department of Ecology, the Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County, where the Gateway Pacific Terminal would be built. The public comment process is part of an environmental impact statement, a federal requirement for any large-scale project.
One meeting was Tuesday in Spokane, and there’ll be two more this month, in Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.
Larry Altose, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology, welcomed other residents to submit comments online.
“While it won’t be possible to conduct a meeting in every community, we have established a website that includes all the materials displayed at the seven community meetings,” Altose said.
But Washines said not everyone in tribal communities had Internet access, and that even for those who were connected, the material might not help them understand the projects.
“A lot of information is coming across very quickly and at a highly technical reporting level,” she said. “It doesn’t resonate with locals.”
Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald and John Stark of The Bellingham Herald contributed to this article.