Last night in Scappoose, 150 people gathered to discuss a proposed coal export project – which had been negotiated by their Port Commissioners behind closed doors – to transport millions of tons of coal through their community. The room was standing room only(!) with the audience erupting into spontaneous applause when the discussion turned to arguments against the project. The genuine frustration, concern, and sometimes anger was palpable.
It was Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity’s Kitchen Table Conversation, looking at the coal projects covered ongoing by national and local media because of the unprecedented scope of what they hope to do. The local paper, the South County Spotlight, was a cosponsor.
CCCHD’s David Scharf stepped up to the podium to begin the event:
This conversation is about the proposed coal export facilities in Columbia County. Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity is an organization dedicated to fostering democracy on a local level. It is our belief that an informed citizenry nourishes democracy. An informed citizenry participates in healthy discussions about issues affecting the community they live in. Above all else, we at CCCHD believe in an inclusive democracy, which means that not only those with money & political power have a voice, but that people most affected by these decisions have a voice as well.
After being rejected from a half-dozen ports in larger towns from Seattle to Portland, energy corporations Ambre Energy and Kinder Morgan began courting the Port of Saint Helens. They approached Port Commissioners hoping that the offer to bring jobs to the community would be impossible to resist (the Ambre project promises 25 permanent jobs), and that the small-town community would sacrifice health, transportation access, and quality of life to the siren’s call of economic development.
Dozens of studies have documented the health impacts of coal dust lost during transport. Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, and mercury are spread with the coal in a fine dust throughout surrounding communities – an average of 125 pounds of coal dust is dispersed per mile per train.
As elected officials listened from the back of the room, union members, political party members, human dignity activists, and many concerned residents heard opening speeches by a panel of environmental groups, the Port director, and a PR contractor for Ambre. They met in small groups and each came up with a list of questions, then agreed on one per table to put to the panel.
- What happens to emergency vehicles while the trains are passing?
- With our limited rail infrastructure, why do we prioritize this one corporation at the possible expense of attracting other industry?
- Why would the port consider such a horrendous proposal with so many negative impacts and just 25 jobs as the positive outcome?
- What are the economic impacts when the global coal market collapses, as it surely will?
- How will current and potential businesses be impacted by transportation and coal dust issues? How do we know this is good for economic development?
- Oregon is a leader sustainability, how will this impact our green energy plan?
- Why did the commissioners make the initial decision behind closed doors?
- Can we put this issue on the ballot and have the people vote on it?
These questions were tackled one by one, among others, revealing new answers to questions that had been obscured, and opening new directions for public opposition. After each question, the large group was asked to vote about whether the question had been answered, or not. Unanswered questions will be followed up on with the Port, the energy companies, and regulators, and answers provided in the South County Spotlight.
An inclusive tactic for a tough issue
CCCHD created their own platform to elevate voices of the public on an issue that has been intentionally kept out of public view, to build accountability, and build knowledge for residents on the path to stand strong against sacrificing what is best about their community for the promises of large corporations. And they did it through engaging every rung of their community in an exercise in inclusive democracy and civic dialogue.
As David Scharf said after the forum: “Prior to the last couple of months I would have been another placard carrying rabble rouser. I’m immensely grateful to the people who have helped me see how in the long run, putting this coal thing on the table and helping people to see the truth of it is actually the more effective way to build the opposition we need to protect our community. “
This is not to say that rabble rousing is a tactic of the past, just that as smart and strategic organizers, we’ve got to have many tools in our toolbelt – and the ability to host a heated yet respectful debate on a complex incorporating the voices of 150 community leaders is one of many ways to practice democracy. Kudos to CCCHD!
* Thanks to Donna Nyberg for the photo! *