Lawn signs sprout like fall mushrooms in Whatcom County as people take sides in two hotly contested races that could be of vital importance in the struggle over plans to build the nation’s largest coal-export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.
But it is a little blue sign that began popping up in Bellingham neighborhoods that seems to have put coal opponents into the driver’s seat in the mayoralty race. Another Family Voting Against Coal Trains was placed on lawns by Whatcom Conservation Voters, which is also supporting Mayor Dan Pike’s campaign for re-election. The signs prompted a spirited reaction from backers of challenger Kelli Linville, ultimately concluding Thursday (Oct. 20) when Linville joined Pike in expressing strong opposition to the export terminal. That left no doubt that opponent of the terminal will lead City Hall as applications go forward.
In a sometimes-heated debate Thursday at Western Washington University, Linville insisted that she had always opposed the SSA Marine project, even before Pike announced his opposition in June. “I agree with the mayor,” she stated, adding that as early as October 2010 she said she could not support the plan, “because it was coal.” Linville, however, also had previously maintained that she would not take a final public position on the terminal until formal hearings are slated — sometime next year, long after the mayoralty election. "I support the public process; let it work its way through," she told Crosscut in June, in reaction to Pike’s statement of opposition.
That position — Linville is a firm believer in process, beginning and ending her Thursday night debate statements with a plea for process — led terminal opponents to charge she was equivocating. She admitted as much in a Thursday afternoon telephone conversation, attributing it to her legislative nature of always looking for options before making final commitments. But she was already firming her position.
“I don’t think they can make the case that this is a multi-purpose terminal,” she told me. “I said I supported a multi-purpose pier, they said this is a multi-purpose pier; but their only contract is for coal. That’s not the multi-purpose pier I’ve supported.” SSA Marine plans a terminal shipping 54 million tons of bulk commodities a year; 48 million tons would be coal. The coal would bring 18 unit trains a year through Bellingham, each a mile and a half long, running alongside some of the city’s prime real estate. Both Linville and Pike have been pushing terminal sponsors to mitigate effects of the train traffic, if the terminal is built.
Mayor Pike has spearheaded an effort to get mayors all along the coal-train route to oppose the shipments, and the mayors of Seattle and Spokane have expressed support. With Thursday’s developments, Bellingham remains in position opposing the terminal, although the candidates may still debate who-was-for-what-and-when and matters of advocacy vs. process. The race is considered too close to call; Pike won the primary by only 28 votes. Candidates have one more debate, Wednesday (Oct. 26) at Bellingham City Club.
While Bellingham City Hall can play a key role in mobilizing public opinion and pressing for mitigation of the impact of added coal trains (six coal trains a day already run through the city en route to a terminal south of Vancouver, B.C.), the city has no vote on the terminal because it would be outside the city, in Whatcom County on an industrial site that already contains two oil refineries and an aluminum plant. .
An attendant contest for Whatcom County executive may ultimately play a larger role in the export terminal’s future. The position is open and two Republicans, State Sen. Doug Ericksen and former Lynden Mayor Jack Louws, defeated two Democrats in the nonpartisan primary.
Whatcom County is co-lead agency for environmental review of terminal applications, along with the Washington Department of Ecology; other state and federal agencies also have a role. The new county executive could play a big role in setting the tone for county planners who oversee the process.
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