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Coal-export plan survives election cliffhangers

Neither side in the battle over exporting coal to China winds up with clear mandate in Bellingham and Whatcom County elections.

This fall's election campaigns in Bellingham have found candidates talking about a proposed coal port.

This fall's election campaigns in Bellingham have found candidates talking about a proposed coal port. Floyd McKay

Runs of trains loaded with coal could increase under proposals new shipping facilities in Washington and Oregon.

Runs of trains loaded with coal could increase under proposals new shipping facilities in Washington and Oregon. Paul K. Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

It started out as a "mixed bag" election in Whatcom County on Nov. 8 and, after a week of nail-biting changes in two closely watched races, wound up in the same place for both sides of the controversy over a major export terminal that would be the nation's largest coal port.

Project opponents had put their hopes in five races; in the final counting they won two, lost one, and had ties of sorts in the other two. It would be impossible to determine any sort of mandate from an election that brought nearly 59 percent of county voters to the polls.

Ultimately, the familiar refrains of "liberal city vs. conservative county" showed up in the results for county offices. Whatcom County swings from one side to another every two or four years. Bellingham voters, about 40 percent of the county, generally select candidates favoring controls on growth; small-city and rural voters tend to favor candidates supporting more development. City Democrats and rural Republicans dominate in the respective areas, and nominal non-partisan races often wind up split along party lines. Such was the case in county races again this year.

Final results saw the defeat of Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike and candidate for county commission Christina Maginnis, both backed heavily by foes of the coal-export plans. Both lost by margins just outside the limits for an automatic recount. Pike needed another 40 votes to qualify for a recount against former Rep. Kelli Linville, who held a narrow lead from the opening count and held a lead Tuesday night (Nov. 15) of 12,426 to 12,262 with only an estimated 200 votes to count. Maginnis, a political newcomer challenging veteran County Commissioner Sam Crawford, lost by 467 votes; Crawford posted a margin of 30,970 to 30,503. Counting at the end of last week had seen the insurgent Maginnis pull ahead of Crawford, but she could not hold the lead as votes from rural areas poured in Monday and Tuesday.

Crawford has said he will be objective about the terminal. Fellow commissioner —and terminal backer —Tony Larson, lost to Pete Kremen, the outgoing county executive, in a race for re-election, giving terminal opponents a gain of one on the seven-member board. Kremen had a lead of 1,165 votes Tuesday. A third commission race saw veteran Barbara Brenner easily gain re-election; although conservation voters endorsed her opponent, Alan Black, Brenner has not taken a position on the coal port.

Maginnis, a stormwater specialist with the Department of Ecology, won by large majorities in nearly every Bellingham precinct, as well as precincts on the water in the county, on Lummi Island, and the Lummi peninsula and near Lake Whatcom. But Crawford had large majorities in Lynden and other small Whatcom cities.

Whatcom County commissioners will ultimately vote on both a major project permit and a shorelines substantial development permit before the project can proceed. In the case of the shoreline permit, state agencies will also play a role in final approval. The county, state Department of Ecology and U. S. Army Corps of Engineers are sharing the responsibility for putting together the lengthy environmental-impact studies that will ultimately go to the county and state.

Perhaps most important from the export terminal standpoint, Whatcom voters turned back the bid of state Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, a strong port backer, in the county executive's race. He polled only 46.1 percent against former Lynden Mayor Jack Louws, who had taken no stand on the port but was seen by port opponents as much more open to dialogue. The county executive oversees departments that are critical to review of the project applications.

Bellingham's elected officials have no vote on the project, although the city's residents are about 40 percent of the voting population of Whatcom County. City officials, including the mayor, may be expected to testify at various public hearings.

Pike was heavily supported in Bellingham precincts near the BNSF rail tracks, but Linville gained from name familiarity built up over 17 years in the Legislature representing most of north Bellingham. She stated opposition to coal exports, firming up her public statements late in the campaign, so the mayor's office remains in the hands of a terminal opponent. But few expect Linville to be as vocal in opposition as Pike.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Nov 16, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate

good, clear, unbiased update from a great journalist and journalism educator.

Ammons

Posted Wed, Nov 16, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Although he provides some interesting details, McKay's understanding of the coal port review process is deficient. Starting with an incidental misconception, Whatcom County has been operating under a charter since 1978 that provides for a County Council and Executive, not Commissioners. Also, in terms of the political personality scorecard, coal port opponents would be unwise to rely on Pete Kremen for support under pressure. In his earliest political incarnation as a state legislator, Pete was known among his colleagues as "The Rock." This was because he had the habit of announcing a position, and then after 5 minutes of arm-twisting, reversing himself.

As for the bigger regulatory picture, the critical shoreline approvals required for the project are in reality state permits initiated on the local level. The county's permit decision will be automatically reviewed by the state Department of Ecology. And the inevitable litigation over the local permitting decisions commences at the state Shorelines Hearings Board. Although in recent years the SHB has become weighted down with the dead wood of political hacks fattening up their state pension accounts, it still retains some useful institutional expertise. Finally, if the project requires the amendment of the county's shoreline regulations or policies, such amendments must be approved by Ecology. It was failure to get DOE approval of county Shoreline Master Program amendments that earlier doomed both the CBI and Keiwit proposals at Cherry Point -- state decisions that were reviewed and authorized by then-Governor John Spellman.

The statewide interest is reinforced by the fact that the environmental impacts of of the coal port proposal are regional in scope. Every community and resident along the haul route to and from the port will be affected. In short, while the permitting saga may indeed begin in Whatcom County, it surely will not end there. Greater ultimate consequences for the coal port outcome will be generated by the statewide 2012 gubernatorial election than by the 2011 local elections in Bellingham and Whatcom County.

woofer

Posted Wed, Nov 16, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Another good piece, but with some oversimplification embedded around the Coal Terminal issue. The lines are not as clear cut, but there is no question that Mayor Pike tried to use the GPT issue as a shield from answering other questions more pertinent to his job. This was a battle of perceptions more than anything else.
I doubt these elections will do much to alter whatever happens with the proposed Coal Terminal and its logistics train. One can only hope that a thorough EIS is scoped and fairly evaluated so that true costs to the impacted communities are known and mitigated. Having said that, the best mitigation would be no coal terminal!

jwatts

Posted Wed, Nov 16, 10:38 p.m. Inappropriate

"The trains enter the state at Spokane, and run through Tri-Cities, down the Columbia River Gorge, and through Vancouver and along the BNSF tracks through Longview-Kelso, Centralia, Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, Mount Vernon, Bellingham, and Ferndale."

Are they too heavy to go over the pass routes? In any case, a circuitous trip to China, where I suppose the coal hops on another train.

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 5:58 a.m. Inappropriate

WSDOT is spending about 1/2 a billion to upgrade the BNSF line between Vancouver, WA and Seattle for a few extra trains per day - a BNSF requirement for more access.
How much is BNSF going to demand upfront for 20-30 coal trains per day, which are much longer and slower than a passenger train?
Answer: Nothing.

007

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

I’m not an expert on train routes (others please weigh in), but my understanding, from various sources, is that Stampede Pass from Yakima to Auburn cannot handle coal because of the climb for full trains, and the condition of the tracks. The line was essentially dormant until the mid-1990s, and is now used to haul agricultural products, chemicals and forest products. It probably could be used as a return route for empty coal cars, but weight and length of coal trains appears to prohibit loaded trains.

Stevens Pass is the major east-west route for BNSF trains from Spokane to Everett, and is a high-priority line for double-stack cars, operating at more than 70 percent of capacity. The 7.9-mile long tunnel at the pass could create problems for long coal trains because of the delay caused by emptying the tunnels of diesel fumes after each passage (about 30 minutes). This places a limit on number of daily trains using the tunnel, about 28 per day at present. If BNSF were to run 18 trains a day when the coal port is at capacity, Stevens Pass could only handle a
small part of the traffic and Stampede Pass probably none of the loaded trains.

Posted Thu, Nov 17, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Also, I would imagine having that much combustible material in a confined space should prompt some safety concerns. A trainload of coal on fire, or a coal dust explosion would render the tunnels useless for a very long time.
Sprinklers anyone?

007

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Regarding the last two "economic impact studies" paid for by SSA.

Adding the crews from the freighter traffic is really juicing the numbers.

I am wondering if the "economists" calculated in "opportunity cost". Opportunity cost is defined as the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the best alternative that is not chosen or is foregone.

A good study was conducted on economic impact studies indicating that what one puts into the equation and how long one wants to spin the wheel of fortune will determine the outcome. An old computer terms puts it best: garbage in, garbage out (GIGO).

If one was to take all the economic impact studies conducted by a variety of industries one would see that the State of Washington was as rich as Saudi Arabia. The problem lies in indirect "benefits" and what one considers "indirect". A good example of how economic impact studies can go terribly wrong is the recent study on the "benefits" of hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, BC. At first economists placed the impacts (benefits) at $20 billion. Two later revisions brought that figure down to $6 billion and a recent study showed impacts at $2 billion. Costs of course were never fully reported which now have been pegged at over $7 billion. Impact studies are being used to sell a project rather than assess.

Property values adversely affected by increased rail traffic and coal dust needs to calculated as well as other parts of the local and state economy impacted negatively.

Readers should be suspect of any "analysis" that does not weigh costs from multiple accounts against benefits.

pwlg

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Having worked at both major coal terminals in BC I can say that attempts to reduce or eliminate coal dust and debris from the atmosphere and ocean have not been totally effective and given the nature of coal handling at ports it never will be unless a complete closed system is in place. Wet coal has a tendency of sticking to the conveyor belt and collecting onto the belt below the conveyor structure. These concentrations of product need to be cleaned out and currently the practice of cleaning is with high pressure fire hoses that wash the debris into the ocean. Belts have to be cleaned when different varieties of coal products are being handled from one ship to another to avoid contamination.

During the dry spring,summer and fall months both shipments of coal by rail and handling coal at the port are subject to high levels of coal dust. Coal in train cars are sprayed with water at their initial loading location and during travel the water sprayed on the coal evaporates and dust results.

Large coal piles left for any length of time can heat up from friction and ignite. Most coal ports have water trucks with high pressure water cannons to put out these fires.

The rail line should be relocated away from the shoreline from Seattle to the border due to current large shipments of propane, chlorine and ammonia gases. Check out major rail accidents in the last decade in Minot, ND and Graniteville, SC and Texarcana, AR.

pwlg

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Sorry for the mind intrusion one more time but just saw this fact.

BNSF (wholly owned by Berkshire Hathaway-Warren Buffet) earned a net income of $2.5 billion in 2010. Why is WSDOT subsidizing BNSF?

The shoreline along Puget Sound has had significant landslides over the last 100 years. The last large slide derailed the BNSF train in the late 1990's.

During heavy rains Amtrak stops operating north of Seattle however BNSF continues to operate carrying large quantities of toxic and explosive materials. Get BNSF off the shoreline!

pwlg

Posted Mon, Nov 21, 5:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Is Everett deep enough for cape size ships? With Kimberly Clark leaving, seems like they would be looking for more industry.

Posted Sat, Dec 10, 12:34 p.m. Inappropriate

I am afraid I made an error in this story, which I would like to point out to readers. When I stated "Crawford's win was good news for SSA Marine, sponsor of the proposed coal terminal; Crawford has spoken in favor of the project," I was in error. A check of my notes reveals that a Crawford statement was taken out of context, leading me to conclude that he had spoken for the terminal; he has stated that he will maintain objectivity. My apologies to Mr. Crawford and to readers.

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