Construction of the pounds 80m bulk goods facility at Royal Portbury Dock, Bristol, is nearly complete, with the first ship expected within four months. It has been financed in a joint venture between National Power, the electricity generator, and the Bristol Port Company, which owns the docks.
But local opponents, supported by the National Union of Mineworkers, have challenged the development in an obscure public inquiry conducted by the Department of Transport over a Harbour Revision Order.
The Bristol Port Company was set up in 1991 to take over the docks, which were sold on a 150- year lease by Bristol council. The company, of which Sir Marcus Fox, MP for Shipley, Yorkshire, and chairman of the influential 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, is a director, has spent heavily in upgrading the port.
The objectors admit privately that they have only an outside chance of stopping the terminal - capable of importing 10 million tons a year - through opposition to the Revision Order. Hedley Bashforth, a Labour member of Bristol council, said local residents were worried about coal dust pollution and the growth of heavy vehicle traffic.
He was also concerned by the threat to the rest of Bristol's port operations if the bulk terminal did not succeed in attracting business. Dredging and dock extensions mean the facility will be capable of handling large bulk ships of 120,000 tons.
'We are concerned that the biggest coal import terminal is being built without any public scrutiny.'
The final verdict of Brian Evans, the inquiry inspector, is not expected to be delivered to the Department of Transport for three months and a further delay is likely before a decision on the Revision Order is reached. Oral evidence in the inquiry ended yesterday and the hearing was adjourned until 12 February, when a day has been set aside for the closing submission from the developers.
The protesters are demanding another inquiry under the Environmental Protection Act, to consider the environmental implications of the bulk terminal.