For David Given-Seymour and many other Belllingham residents, the debate over a proposed coal-shipping port north of Bellingham stirs echoes of a political drama that gripped the state in the early 1980s. A threatening note left in his mailbox one day during the controversy made him uneasy, Given-Seymour admits.
The message expressed outrage over his role in opposing a huge industrial plant on a sensitive stretch of shoreline northwest of Bellingham. The note read: “You should be hung by the balls until blue.”
First thing that came to the grant-writing consultant’s mind was an instinct to edit. “Strangely enough, I remember an urge to correct his grammar,” he said recently. “Then it dawned on me that this guy hand-delivered the note. Obviously he knew where I lived. I started thinking of a lot of things other than verbs and objects.”
Nothing came of the threat and on a sunny, breezy Bellingham morning 30 years later, Given-Seymour recalled the political and environmental conflict known as the CBI fight, for Chicago Bridge and Iron, which involved plans for industrial construction at Cherry Point where today a proposal to build a port to ship coal to China has stirred sharp controversy.
Then as now, the issues around the Cherry Point site brought fierce disagreements about jobs and longer-term economic and sustainability. Both fights have drawn in state as well as local agencies and politicians. But there are differences in the political context, with today's environmental movement much more established. And the earlier fight brought fierce political turmoil in Olympia, culminating in dramatic action by a then-Gov. John Spellman, while today's battle has so far stayed fairly quiet in the state capital. A critical population of herring, on which salmon feed, played major roles then and the small fishes remain a concern now. (In coming days, I'll report on the decline of the herring and how state regulators are looking at accommodating them in any construction now.)
In the 1980s, the Chicago Bridge and Iron corporation owned a industrial-zoned shoreline at Cherry Point and planned to build a steel fabrication plant there. “The level of anger directed toward us (opponents of the CBI plan) was amazing,” Given-Seymour told Crosscut. “At the same time, it was understandable. Times were hard, maybe harder than they are now. Jobs were very scarce.”
The fight centered on the same chunk of salt water, beach, and woods that is now the focus of a growing conflict over the proposed SSA Marine coal export terminal. Cherry Point, with remarkably deep water close to shore, has beckoned water-dependent industries for half a century. Three major ones already operated there in 1982, two oil refineries and an aluminum plant.
Given-Seymour and his fellow activists, organized as Citizens for Sensible Industry, campaigned against the CBI plan at the very time the state was begging for industry to help dig out from a deep economic slump. CBI promised a measure of salvation: 1,200 to 1400 long-term jobs at union wages, building oil drilling platforms at the deep water shoreline for use in drilling Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. But plan would have ripped a hole in the state’s Shoreline Management Act, only 10 years old at the time.
CBI wanted to build a 22-acre landfill and stone seawall extending into the Strait of Georgia, to form a graving dock. There it would construct oil drilling platforms 500 feet wide, to be towed to Alaska for drilling in the Beaufort Sea. Periodically the wall would be opened, allowing seawater to float the completed platforms into the Strait, along with whatever contamination had occurred during the construction work. The impact on the shoreline and nearby fishery was potentially devastating. About half the state’s herring stock spawned at the site and nearby. The herring fishery was a budding industry on its own and herring were (still are) the staff of life for Chinook salmon and — by way of the salmon — for Puget Sound Orcas.
It was left to the state’s most recent Republican governor to make one of the grittiest decisions a Washington governor has had the misfortune to confront. Gov. John Spellman, an amiable former King County Executive, pipe smoker, and accomplished Irish tenor, was already having a tough year. The state’s regressive and spindly tax system was moving it toward broke. Nine percent of Washington workers were jobless (today’s rate is similar, estimated at 9.3 percent as of August). Spellman struggled to balance the budget with a mix of program cuts and tax increases, and to keep a wispy safety net of support for homeless, mentally ill, jobless, and unemployable.
One of the governor’s harshest critics was a leader of his own party, House Speaker and Seattle-based architect Bill Polk. The Republican speaker and Republican governor operated from positions of mutual disdain. Polk blocked Spellman proposals through the longest legislative session on record and the four special sessions that followed. Spellman called Polk and his legislative followers the “troglodyte wing of the Republican Party.”
Polk told Crosscut recently, “Things got pretty testy. They (Spellman’s allies in the GOP caucus) and the (minority) Democrats wanted to raise taxes. We thought that was the last thing you want to do when the economy’s in trouble. They finally got enough Democratic votes to pass a one percent sales tax increase over the leadership opposition.” They also initiated Washington’s first state lottery. Spellman approved it reluctantly, although he later told the Seattle Weekly he thought it was a “fraudulent” way for the state to raise money. (His criticism of the lottery softened somewhat later.)
Steve Excell, who was Spellman’s chief of staff, recalls that in the search for state revenue, “The legislature would go for anything that might bring in a dollar and 98 cents.” CBI offered millions in wages and taxes. It looked like a bargain version of the promised land, never mind the threat to a peculiar and fragile ecology that nourished the Northwest’s vital (in those days) fishing industry.
In Whatcom County, where the jobless rate had reached 11 percent, CBI moved its project through the local permitting process. The Whatcom County Council rewrote its own environmental regulations to accommodate the company’s drastic reshaping of the shoreline. That wasn’t enough. CBI needed a blanket exemption putting it beyond the reach of state departments of Ecology, Fisheries, and Public Lands, all with regulatory power at the shoreline and inshore waters, and all concerned about what the company wanted to do.
Bob Partlow, covering Olympia for the Bellingham Herald, wrote at the time: “Faced with a project that violated state and local shoreline regulations, the company decided to change the regulations rather than change the project. It turned to the legislature.”
CBI hired the three highest priced lobbyists in Olympia, and within a few months, all four legislative caucuses — Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate — lined up behind a bill granting a special exemption to the CBI property. The bill identified an area coinciding with the CBI property as “a shoreline of statewide economic significance,” something new in land use parlance where “economic considerations may take precedence over environmental considerations, so that the economic vitality of the state can be maintained or promoted.” The state Department of Fisheries warned that it would “eliminate habitat for the largest herring population in Washington and alter the migratory habits of salmon.”
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