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How coal-port voting in Bellingham holds lessons for rest of state

Shipping coal to Asia has become a major business in Canada. Credit: Port Metro Vancouver

Heavier than expected voting in Whatcom County left in doubt Wednesday the fate of two races considered important to prospects of a giant export terminal proposed for Cherry Point north of Bellingham. Clearly settled, however, is the race for Whatcom County executive, where former Lynden Mayor Jack Louws easily defeated Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, 23,184 to 19,77 with about 24,000 votes yet to be counted.

Ericksen conceded defeat earlier Wednesday (Nov. 9). The race had been considered critical by terminal foes — Ericksen was an outspoken proponent, and terminal opponents feared he would pressure county officials during their review of project applications expected in the next few months.

In another race important to the issue, Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike, a leading voice in opposition to the terminal, continued Wednesday to narrowly trail former Rep. Kelli Linville, 8,656 to 8,233; the 423-vote Linville margin increased slightly from Tuesday. The race mirrored the dead-heat primary, won by Pike by only 28 votes. Linville has stated opposition to coal exports, which would take up 48 million of the 54-million-ton capacity of the terminal, but has been less aggressive in her opposition.

A third race of some importance tightened on Wednesday. Terminal opponents had hoped to defeat incumbent County Council member Sam Crawford; his challenger, Christina Maginnis of Bellingham, closed to within 321 votes, 20,982 to 20,661. In another closely watched county race, outgoing county executive Pete Kremen widened his lead over incumbent councilman Tony Larson, a backer of the terminal.

Whatcom County is co-lead for review of applications expected to be filed by Gateway Pacific Terminal at year’s end, along with the Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The County Council will cast important votes on the applications, and the county executive will be in a position to influence staff work. Louws has not expressed an opinion on the terminal, and terminal foes favored him over the advocacy of Ericksen.

The slow pace of vote-counting on Wednesday and the heavy turnout, already nearing 40 percent, means the Pike-Linville and Maginnis-Crawford races won’t soon be resolved. But it is possible to draw from early results some indications of how politics will play in other communities as efforts to stop the coal exports begin to move outside Whatcom County and across the state.

An analysis of city of Bellingham voting patterns reveals the importance of proximity to BNSF rail tracks in building opposition to shipments of coal from the Powder River Basin to Cherry Point. Residents near the tracks have felt disruption from noise and congestion for the year-plus since BNSF began running coal trains to British Columbia.

Ten Bellingham precincts touch on Bellingham Bay and the BNSF railroad tracks, and two additional precincts are within a “sound zone” of half a mile from the tracks. In the Tuesday night vote count (roughly two-thirds of the total expected to vote), results from those precincts heavily favored Pike and Louws, the candidates seen as most favorable on the coal-export question by leadership of the anti-coal effort. Wednesday night results did not substantially change this analysis.

This was despite the fact that eight of the 12 precincts are within legislative district 42, represented by Kelli Linville for 17 years and by Doug Ericksen since 1999. Ericksen lost by large margins in his own precincts and Linville won only one of the 12. In Democratic Bellingham, Ericksen’s reputation as a partisan Republican spokesman worked against his candidacy. Linville, on the other hand, is a familiar Democratic face and did well in the 42nd outside the “impact” zone near water. Bellingham is split into two legislative districts; the 42nd is primarily north and east, but has a leg along the city’s waterfront.

Overall, Mayor Pike had a margin of 2,381 to 1,628 in the 12 “impacted” precincts, a 59.4 percent margin over Linville. Louws enjoyed an even larger margin over Ericksen, 2,265 to 976, carrying 70 percent of the vote.

Many other factors play into local elections, of course, but one can certainly make the argument that those most affected by railroad noise and disruption will have the strongest positions on the export terminal. As terminal opponents begin to make their way down the long rail line between Spokane and Cherry Point, of necessity they will start at the railroad tracks and attempt to move their campaign inland.

The coal trains have been a palpable presence since mid-2010; at least six trains a day carry coal through Washington en route to Roberts Bank, south of Vancouver, B.C. The export terminal estimates an additional 18 will be required to service the coal export facility when the terminal is built to capacity. The shipping terminal itself is remote and intangible at this moment and the figure of 54 million tons of bulk commodities seems abstract. But the trains are already a growing presence in trackside communities.

Coal opponents, organizing through an umbrella group, Power Past Coal, have already held forums in trackside communities, including Everett, Mount Vernon, Edmonds, and Spokane. The tracks also run through Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, Centralia, and smaller communities as well as the Columbia Gorge. Trackside properties include a great deal of industrial property but also large numbers of homes that have been built to take advantage of Puget Sound views.

Coal forums are slated next week in Seattle, Marysville and Portland. A Tuesday night forum in Hood River, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, drew 125 people.

In several of these locations Amtrak runs were cancelled frequently during last winter’s rainy months due to landslides that closed the line for passenger rail traffic. Freight trains, operating under less stringent rules, were allowed to run as soon as tracks were cleared, but passenger trains suffered 48-hour closures. The impact of additional coal trains on a railroad line that is single-track in some locations is of considerable concern to rail-transit advocates; existing freight traffic already impacts the on-time performance of Amtrak in Western Washington.

Impacts on passenger-rail traffic, including Sound Transit in the Seattle area, as well as widespread opposition to coal because of its impact on global warming, have been cited in response to charges that neighborhood opposition to the coal trains is nothing but a NIMBY. Results of the highly charged debate in Bellingham, however, emphasize the importance of proximity to the railroad tracks in building opposition to the export terminal and resultant coal unit trains.

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