The five-mile trip on I-5 from Bellingham to Ferndale is mostly open with pockets of small businesses, but somewhere along the way one leaves Bellingham and enters Whatcom County.
Members of the team that is conducting scoping meetings to determine what should be studied in an environmental review of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal learned that point quite well Thursday (Nov. 29) as they held the fourth of seven meetings around the state. Ferndale is definitely part of “The County,” and Bellingham — although a city within Whatcom County — is not part of The County.
It’s a phenomenon repeated in many places where a liberal city is surrounded by a much more conservative county. Issues divide, cultures divide, voting patterns reflect the division. In this case, it’s the terminal, which proponents call the “bulk terminal” and opponents call the “coal terminal.” Actually, it would be both: a bulk terminal where the bulk commodity is coal. And so it goes.
Backers of the $665 million terminal dominated the Ferndale hearing, just as opponents dominated an earlier hearing in Bellingham. SSA Marine, the project sponsor, handed out green T-shirts to supporters who began gathering before 10 a.m. for a session that started five hours later. As a result, the green-glad supporters got nearly all of the 100 speaking slots, allocated on a first-come basis.
About 1,300 showed up for the four-hour session, perhaps two-thirds backing the terminal, based on the reaction to speakers.
Pro-terminal speakers held the microphone for over two hours before the number of an opponent was called. And, wouldn’t you know it, the speaker was a recent (2006) incomer to the area, a vegetarian and organic gardener building a solar home. He set a sharp contrast to the 62 who spoke before him, many of whom stressed generations of family in Whatcom County growing up on family-wage, blue-collar jobs.
Their message was simple — Whatcom County needs more good jobs and the terminal will be a good citizen and pay good wages and lots of taxes to local schools and other agencies. Many of the speakers identified themselves as union members, particularly of construction and longshore unions, and told the panel of job losses in the economic recession.
“Organized labor is very clear, from the hiring halls in Northwest Washington to our state and national federations, we want the Gateway Pacific Terminal built. Our members know how to build and operate these facilities safely,” Mark Lowry, president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, told the panel.
"Labor takes a backseat to no one on strong environmental standards, and none will be slighted here. We want to do this project right, and we call on the agencies to get on with the study.”
Although Whatcom County’s unemployment rate is only 6.4 percent, below the state average of 8.2 percent, high-income union jobs have been depressed since closure of the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill in 2001. Leaders in Bellingham have attempted to move toward a more “green” and professional economy; smaller towns in the county are pushing for the industrial jobs provided by the terminal.
That message has been the major selling point for the terminal in Whatcom County, and SSA has sent groups of young men door-to-door for weeks to emphasize the economic and tax benefits from the terminal. Nearly all of Washington’s direct economic benefits from the project — which would be the largest coal-export terminal on the West Coast — will be in Whatcom County, and most of the tax benefits as well. Negative impacts, such as additional rail traffic and shipping in Puget Sound and threats to the salmon fishery, will be primarily borne outside the immediate zone around the terminal. The three earlier scoping sessions—in Bellingham, Friday Harbor and Mount Vernon—heard primarily from the impacted communities; Thursday the panel heard from some of those who would benefit.
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