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Tale of Two Cities: Ferndale welcomes Big Coal

Cherry Point has pumped millions into Ferndale, where residents and town officials are (mostly) bullish on coal.
A loaded coal train crosses Main Street, Ferndale’s only grade separation

A loaded coal train crosses Main Street, Ferndale’s only grade separation Photo: Paul K. Anderson

Editor's note: This two-part series looks at the local impact of the giant Gateway Pacific coal export terminal being considered for Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. If approved and built, Gateway Pacific will dramatically increase the number and size of trains hauling coal through western Washington's railroad towns. Here is how the prospect of Big Coal plays in industrial Ferndale. Tomorrow, we'll visit small town Burlington, just 40 miles down the track.

Cherry Point gave Ferndale new life more than half a century ago. The site’s two big oil refineries, aluminum plant and co-generation facility turned the struggling farm town into a bedroom community with acres of attractive suburban homes for the new commuters traveling back and forth to nearby Bellingham. Over the years, Cherry Point has pumped millions into the city and its school system.

No surprise then that Ferndale officials — and most of its residents — support the giant coal-export facility that is being proposed for the Cherry Point site. If approved and built, the so-called Gateway Pacific Terminal would be the nation’s largest coal export operation. The proposed $665 million investment would make GPT the second most valuable property in Whatcom County, right after the BP Refinery at Cherry Point.

In addition to the obvious boon to Ferndale’s property tax base, the city also stands to gain many of the 430 permanent jobs at GPT, plus temporary construction jobs. For this city of 12,000, firmly middle-class and blue-collar, Cherry Point industries pay good wages.

But Ferndale officials and citizens clearly face a conflict over GPT. The obvious economic benefits of a new coal port come with equally obvious downsides.

Coal is an unpopular commodity, China an unpopular destination and since GPT coal will be transported by rail and not ship, congestion from coal trains is a huge concern for the increasing number of commuters filling Ferndale’s quiet cul-de-sac neighborhoods.

Tradeoffs are inevitable if Ferndale continues to back another Cherry Point plant. But city leaders are among the proponents featured in GPT testimonials.

Ferndale citizens won’t be the ones voting to approve GPT. The Whatcom County Council is the major decision-maker among several agencies. But the view from Ferndale will certainly be on the radar when the County Council votes — no earlier than 2015 by most estimates. 

Today’s deep-water ports on Georgia Strait bring crude oil from Alaska by tankers. The giant ships create few negative impacts, while providing good jobs and tax revenue. It’s been a win-win deal for the ports and their surrounding communities for half a century and, at least in the early going, it looked like more of the same when SSA Marine announced its plans to construct a huge export terminal on a thousand-acre site between the BP and Tosco refineries at Cherry Point.

“We know what Cherry Point did for Ferndale,” says Mayor Gary Jensen, who grew up along with Ferndale in the shadow of these plants. “Cherry Point is a special kind of thing to Ferndale.” The second-term mayor defended the city’s action on April 4, 2011 to become an early supporter of Gateway Pacific.

Ferndale City Council members say they were not told that the terminal would export coal, almost exclusively, and that 18 coal trains a day would be running right through the city. Coal was no secret, however; Peabody Coal had announced an agreement with GPT a month earlier. SSA Marine representatives quickly got all six of Whatcom County’s Small City Caucus members to support the project by stressing payrolls, taxes and a multi-commodity terminal.

Was that vote premature? Jensen won’t say. He defends the right of SSA Marine to present its case for the terminal, and is happy to let the approval process unfold. “I still support going forward,” he says, “but not unconditionally.”


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 12, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. McKay again does his usual scrupulously fair and mostly thorough job of reporting on the Cherry Point coal-port fight, including acknowledgement of the "hard-core conservative" politics that prevail almost everywhere in Whatcom County outside the city of Bellingham and off the Lummi and Nooksack reservations. What he has not reported – or if he has I have somehow missed it – is how the area's political conservatism is in large measure driven by Christian fanaticism. Thus his "Tale of Two Cities" seems to omit adequate discussion of the very factor that will probably determine whether we Puget Sounders manage to escape the myriad afflictions that would be imposed on us were the port to be built.

The fanatical thinking of these Whatcom County Christians includes the notion the deliberate destruction of the environment – the hated physical body of "Mystery Babylon" (known to us non-fanatics as Mother Nature) – will hasten the apocalypse and therefore speed the arrival of the Rapture. (For those of us more grounded in Gaian laws of physics, the Rapture is the moment when the Chosen – that is, the Christian übermenschen – will be bodily lifted into Heaven, there to be somehow vaporized into fundamental union with their god.) Thus these self-enlisted Christian soldiers believe the apocalypse is to be encouraged, hastened by maximizing pollution, food toxicity, political chaos, global war etc. ad nauseam. Thus too the coal port is justified as the "will of god," essential to expedite fulfillment of “god's divine plan for man's salvation.” Salvation equals escape from earthly tribulations – that is, from life and death – and the blatant misogyny of "man's salvation" is not accidental.

I know these things because I have lived in rural Whatcom County three times, first during the early 1970s, again during the 1980s, and the last time during the early 1990s. Hence I can attest to the Taliban-like intensity of the local Christian fanaticism. I know of at least two instances of women being terrorized out of their homes because the local Christians believed they were Wiccans. During the early 90s, I myself was harassed as a “witch” merely because I don't attend church and at the time had two large black dogs – my alleged "familiars." But apparently the ultimate proof of my witchy-ness was not only that I gardened organically, but that I companion-planted pumpkins and squash in with my corn and, after harvest, cut and stacked the stalks in traditional shocks to dry for grinding into compost. (The harassment included dead cats hung on my front doorknob and rocks thrown at my house after dark. It would have been much worse had I not had the two dogs, and it stopped only after I stepped outside one night with a loaded shotgun – the only message these sorts of Christians are sure to understand.)

During the 1970s, either in Whatcom County or an adjacent part of Skagit County, I photographed a church reader-board that bore on one side the message "Organic Is Satanic," and on the other side said "Environmental Is Of The Devil." During those same years there, "God Hates Hippies" was also a common reader-board fatwa. More recently – maybe 1990 in the town of Nooksack – I saw and photographed another such church reader-board, this one bearing the admonition, "God Remembers How You Vote." (The 1970s pictures were lost in the same 1983 fire that destroyed all my life's work; the c. 1990 picture I still have and publish occasionally on my blog.)

Bellingham, possibly the most environmentally conscious city in the entire United States, is at the very least an island of ecological sanity. But it is a decidedly endangered island surrounded by a toxic, aggressively hateful sea of prosperity-gospel, anti-environment, bring-on-the-apocalypse Christian fanaticism. Never, not anywhere else in the United States, even during all my time in the South – about 16 years including a summer (1963) in the Civil Rights Movement – have I encountered a population so festering with religious extremism as that of rural Whatcom County. And – yes – I have dwelt in areas ruled by the Ku Klux Klan, which is in fact the Southern Christian equivalent of the Islamic Morals Police and is therefore colloquially known throughout the South as "the Saturday Night Men's Bible Study Class."

Indeed Mr. McKay's “Tale of Two Cities” might be much more like some far older narrative of Christian conquest, perhaps even a 21st Century replay of the Albigensian Crusade, hopefully without all burnings-at-the-stake with which the crusade concluded. In fact the "Tale" is already shaping up to become an epic struggle between two ideologies, one medieval, intolerant, definitively if not savagely Christian and therefore committed to hastening the apocalypse; the other modern, scientifically informed, environmentally conscious, definitively secular and/or Gaian and above all else committed to planetary sustainability. Moreover, the coal-port fight could become yet another microcosm of the culture war that has destroyed the former civic unity of the United States, with the Christian fanatics determined to punitively inflict on all Bellinghamsters the very environmental poisons they have struggled so long and hard to avoid. That Bellingham is noted for its ethnic and sexual diversity makes such a victory all the more attractive to the city's Christian enemies, who are of course also avowed homophobes and misogynists.

The one remaining question Mr. McKay does not address is whether this would-be total nullification of Bellingham's environmental-protection efforts might be part of a larger stealth campaign to radically alter the balance of power in the nation's most definitively secular state. Washington is also the most demonstrably pro-choice state – the only state to have legalized abortion by popular vote. But the Roman Catholic Church has already nullified the will of the people by buying up the state's secular hospitals, thereby canceling reproductive freedom in all the areas so served. The effort to build an environmentally ruinous coal-port next to a city that is already legendary for its environmental consciousness could well be another dimension of a single ram-it-down-our-throats campaign scripted behind the scenes by the arch-conservatives in one or more of the organizations that, whether openly or clandestinely, serve Christian fanaticism and its theocratic causes. (See particularly The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, Jeff Sharlet; Harper: 2008). In this context, let us not forget the testimony of Watergate Felon John Ehrlichman: that Washington state is the One Percent's favorite proving ground for its strategies and tactics of oppression.

Posted Wed, Jun 12, 5:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Are the Christians there any more fanatical or science-denying than the "progressives" in Seattle? From the "progressive" behavior down here, I tend to doubt it.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Jun 12, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

The good citizens of Fernberg have never encountered a Cherry Point development proposal that they didn't love unconditionally, so their apparent ambivalence over coal is a new experience for them. Who knows how far it will actually go. Lots of new faces now, but Dick Langabeer is still lurking in the background as city attorney.

I don't want to disturb the ideological purity of Bungalow Bliss's paranoid fantasies, but there is actually some diversity among rural Whatcom County Christians. Fernberg is more in the evangelical camp, while further north the Lynden dairy farmers are sobersided Calvinists. But both camps have many acres of marginal farm land that they are eager to unload onto developers.

woofer

Posted Thu, Jun 13, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Apropos "paranoid fantasies" about the dangers of Christian fanaticism, here's a brief bibliography:

websites:

http://www.theocracywatch.org/; http://catholicwatch.org/; http://www.au.org/ (Americans United for Separation of Church and State); http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/

books:

Hedges, Chris: American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster), New York: 2006.

Hentoff, Nat; Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other, HarperCollins, London: 1992. (See particularly pages 46 to 54.)

Jacoby, Susan: The Age of American Unreason, Pantheon Books, New York: 2008. (See particularly pages 183 to 209.)

Phillips, Kevin: American Theocracy: the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, Viking, New York: 2006

Hopefully, this will help clear the air -- before it is too clogged with coal-dust to be breathable.

Posted Thu, Jun 13, 12:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Right On!

Posted Wed, Jun 12, 9:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Ferntucky, home of Washington State's youngest grandmothers, is actually getting a bit less conservative. But I would blame the I-5 for that, which is what has allowed commuting, not Cherry Point, which actually discourages it, with living wage jobs.
Nonetheless, even the refineries and the Aluminum Smelter have a less redneck workforce than they used to- one of the best Tig welders I have ever seen, a rather Out Lesbian, worked up there for a while. She managed to hold her own quite handily.

Ries

Posted Thu, Jun 13, 5:10 p.m. Inappropriate

What a crock, no place does it mention how SSA Marine tried to use a permit issued 12 years ago for a port half the size than want. The original permit did not even mention coal. They tried to slip a addendum for the permit thru the county very quietly. If the county employees who caught it it would have been approved without the proper environmental review.

Posted Sun, Jun 16, 2:28 p.m. Inappropriate

A sign of hope that there is even discussion up there on this. A few jobs equals short-term thinking; that anyone is taking the longer view is a sign of possible change. I don't want to breath coal dust which will shorten my post-retirement life and its quality in exchange for a few jobs. That area is one of the most beautiful in the State and at some point we need to preserve something more beautiful and enjoyed by all than money.

In addition, Inslee should institute a food policy. This country has no food policy. We have the some of the most fertile soil in the nation with lots of water (if we continue to preserve it and use it wisely). We need a food policy before every square inch of our gift of farmland is under concrete or residential developments. Can't we live on a little less and mainatin a healthy environment and food source?

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