Photo: Christopher Michel
What would orcas say about proposals to ship up to 150 million tons of coal per year on trains running along the Columbia River and Puget Sound through sensitive habitat? That’s the question that Washington activist Richard Bergner so creatively addressed in his letter to the editor published last week in the Anacortes American [read full text at bottom].

Rich is heavily involved in the fight to stop five fast-moving coal export terminals in the Northwest, the largest of which is proposed to be built near Bellingham–just across the bay from his hometown of Anacortes.

About the projects, Rich says: “I don’t want to see the Northwest turned into ‘coal country’. The carbon from coal needs to stay in the ground. All the coal trains, ships, etc. will change the character of the Northwest.”

Take ActionProtect Washington’s orcas from toxic coal–send a message to the Army Corps today.

We caught up with Rich to learn more about what compelled him to write his letter, and the many other ways he creates positive change for wildlife:

Rich Bergner
Photo: National Wildlife Federation
A native Washingtonian, Rich Bergner grew up on 40 acres about five miles from the city of Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island, in the Northwest corner of the state. It is this special place–surrounded by the north Puget Sound, abundant wetlands, and emerald forests–that inspired his lifelong commitment to protect wildlife and our natural world.

After seeing what development had done to other places, he starting becoming more involved in local groups like Friends of the Forest to protect the woods that he had spent so much time exploring as a child. With his help, Friends of the Forest and their partners were able to place conservation easements that will permanently protect nearly 1,800 acres of forest lands in Anacortes.

But that was just the beginning. Rich became a member of Evergreen Islands, a local citizen group that has, among other things, prevented a nuclear power plant proposal on a nearby island; the Anacortes Conservation Voters, which helps elect environmentally-friendly decision makers; and Transition Fidalgo & Friends, a group that is working to foster local resilience in response to climate change.

When asked what motivates him, he doesn’t skip a beat, saying: “My two grandchildren: four year old Marisol and two year old Azuul. I want them to experience a healthy natural world…I want to make a small difference. It’s much better than feeling discouraged, hopeless, and powerless by global warming or urban sprawl.”

Rich’s dedication to preserving habitat is evident in his work as a gardener and volunteer at three city parks to enhance their wildlife values by planting native plants. He helped start the Fidalgo Backyard Wildlife Habitat, because “it was a low-key, non-threatening, non adversarial way to foster habitat restoration one yard and project at a time”. In less than three years, Fidalgo Island earned the National Wildlife Federation certification of a Community Wildlife Habitat, and Rich was named “Community Volunteer of the Year” by NWF in 2009 for his enthusiastic and tireless team leadership.

As Rich explains, “What is good for wildlife is good for all of us.  We are all in this together.”

Letters to the Editor, Anacortes American

Words from a whale By Richard Bergner

This is the first time I’ve written to the editor. I’m an orca, a member of J pod here in the waters of the San Juans. You shouldn’t be surprised that orcas can write. After all, you land folks have determined that corporations are people and money is speech. Let me tell you in a nutshell (or seashell) a very scary tale that is not a fairy tale.

Some very wealthy coal, railroad and financial corporations are proposing to dig up coal in vast areas of Wyoming; dump the clumps into open rail cars; haul it all the way to this part of the Northwest in 1.5-mile-long, 125-unit trains; dump all that black grit onto giant coal piles at Cherry Point; and then load it into mammoth, three-football-field-long cargo ships bound for China, India and Korea to feed their industries to outcompete us.

I’m amazed at what you people will do to maintain your fossil fuel habit. I hear some people asking, “Why should I be concerned about coal trains rumbling through Mount Vernon and Burlington and a pile of coal at Cherry point?” Let me tell you.

The coal trains will impact my orca family in the San Juans. We eat salmon, salmon eat herring, and herring need eel grass. Cherry Point herring struggle to survive when eel grass is not healthy. If the whole marine system isn’t healthy, what will I eat? What do you think adding more coal dust, diesel particles and piers are going to do to the eel grass and herring runs of Cherry Point — a marine preserve, by the way? And how will ballast water, noise pollution, sonar, bilge water and ship exhaust emissions impact all us marine creatures in the San Juans? Our fins will flop, a sign of sickness.

I read (yes, I can read, too) that “if a ship is traveling at a speed of only 15 knots, there is a 79 percent chance of a collision being lethal to a whale.” I don’t like those odds. Bulk cargo ships, such as coal vessels, discharge a huge amount of ballast water, which typically contains a variety of biological materials, including plants, animals, viruses and bacteria. Noise pollution can cause me and my buddies to be disorientated, hinder communication and make it harder to find our food.

On a ship, oil often leaks from engine and machinery spaces and mixes with water in the bilge. Oil in even small concentrations can sicken or kill fish. The Evergreen State will become the Eversheen State. I don’t want to eat sick fish.

Do you think that I’m going to stick around here when I can’t eat, hear my buddies or swim in peaceful and clean waters? So when me and my orca friends leave for cleaner, quieter and safer waters (I hope we find some), will the tourist pamphlets and phone-book covers show pictures of giant cargo ships instead of members of my family jumping out of the water? Will the tourists come (if they can get here) to see 1.5-mile-long trains rumbling through the valley, or piles of coal, or giant cargo ships?

Coal terminal. Yes, our planet may be terminal all right if all that coal is burned, releasing all the carbon into the air.

So don’t think, Fidalgo Islanders, that this coal train and coal terminal doesn’t impact you. It will impact me, and that will impact you. We are all in this together, aren’t we?

The 120-day scoping process for the EIS (environmental impact statement) for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal and Custer Spur projects has started. Letters from whales aren’t accepted, so I’m counting on you to help.

Here’s how:

• Mail to: GPT/Custer Spur EIS c/o CH2M HILL, 1100 112th Ave. NE, Suite 400, Bellevue, WA 98004

• Email to: comments@eisgatewaypacificwa.gov

• Visit: www.eisgatewaypacificwa.gov

• Attend a scoping meeting Saturday, Nov. 3, in Friday Harbor, or Monday, Nov. 5 in Mount Vernon.

If you help me keep the Northwest from becoming the Eversheen State, I will tell my orca pals to join me in popping out of the water when you come to watch us.