Cherry Point's coal debate: new fight on a site with stormy history

The conflict between creating jobs and protecting natural resources has raged before in Bellingham and Western Washington. The biggest battle required decisive intervention by a Republican to save the environment.

Crosscut archive image.

The site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal

The conflict between creating jobs and protecting natural resources has raged before in Bellingham and Western Washington. The biggest battle required decisive intervention by a Republican to save the environment.

For David Given-Seymour and many other Belllingham residents, the debate over a proposed coal-shipping port north of Bellingham stirs echoes of a political drama that gripped the state in the early 1980s. A threatening note left in his mailbox one day during the controversy made him uneasy, Given-Seymour admits.

The message expressed outrage over his role in opposing a huge industrial plant on a sensitive stretch of shoreline northwest of Bellingham. The note read: “You should be hung by the balls until blue.”

First thing that came to the grant-writing consultant’s mind was an instinct to edit. “Strangely enough, I remember an urge to correct his grammar,” he said recently. “Then it dawned on me that this guy hand-delivered the note. Obviously he knew where I lived. I started thinking of a lot of things other than verbs and objects.”

Nothing came of the threat and on a sunny, breezy Bellingham morning 30 years later, Given-Seymour recalled the political and environmental conflict known as the CBI fight, for Chicago Bridge and Iron, which involved plans for industrial construction at Cherry Point where today a proposal to build a port to ship coal to China has stirred sharp controversy.

Then as now, the issues around the Cherry Point site brought fierce disagreements about jobs and longer-term economic and sustainability. Both fights have drawn in state as well as local agencies and politicians. But there are differences in the political context, with today's environmental movement much more established. And the earlier fight brought fierce political turmoil in Olympia, culminating in dramatic action by a then-Gov. John Spellman, while today's battle has so far stayed fairly quiet in the state capital. A critical population of herring, on which salmon feed, played major roles then and the small fishes remain a concern now. (In coming days, I'll report on the decline of the herring and how state regulators are looking at accommodating them in any construction now.)

In the 1980s, the Chicago Bridge and Iron corporation owned a industrial-zoned shoreline at Cherry Point and planned to build a steel fabrication plant there. “The level of anger directed toward us (opponents of the CBI plan) was amazing,” Given-Seymour told Crosscut. “At the same time, it was understandable. Times were hard, maybe harder than they are now. Jobs were very scarce.”

The fight centered on the same chunk of salt water, beach, and woods that is now the focus of a growing conflict over the proposed SSA Marine coal export terminal. Cherry Point, with remarkably deep water close to shore, has beckoned water-dependent industries for half a century. Three major ones already operated there in 1982, two oil refineries and an aluminum plant.

Given-Seymour and his fellow activists, organized as Citizens for Sensible Industry, campaigned against the CBI plan at the very time the state was begging for industry to help dig out from a deep economic slump. CBI promised a measure of salvation: 1,200 to  1400 long-term jobs at union wages, building oil drilling platforms at the deep water shoreline for use in drilling Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. But plan would have ripped a hole in the state’s Shoreline Management Act, only 10 years old at the time.

CBI wanted to build a 22-acre landfill and stone seawall extending into the Strait of Georgia, to form a graving dock. There it would construct oil drilling platforms 500 feet wide, to be towed to Alaska for drilling in the Beaufort Sea. Periodically the wall would be opened, allowing seawater to float the completed platforms into the Strait, along with whatever contamination had occurred during the construction work. The impact on the shoreline and nearby fishery was potentially devastating. About half the state’s herring stock spawned at the site and nearby. The herring fishery was a budding industry on its own and herring were (still are) the staff of life for Chinook salmon and — by way of the salmon — for Puget Sound Orcas.

It was left to the state’s most recent Republican governor to make one of the grittiest decisions a Washington governor has had the misfortune to confront. Gov. John Spellman, an amiable former King County Executive, pipe smoker, and accomplished Irish tenor, was already having a tough year. The state’s regressive and spindly tax system was moving it toward broke. Nine percent of Washington workers were jobless (today’s rate is similar, estimated at 9.3 percent as of August). Spellman struggled to balance the budget with a mix of program cuts and tax increases, and to keep a wispy safety net of support for homeless, mentally ill, jobless, and unemployable.

One of the governor’s harshest critics was a leader of his own party, House Speaker and Seattle-based architect Bill Polk. The Republican speaker and Republican governor operated from positions of mutual disdain. Polk blocked Spellman proposals through the longest legislative session on record and the four special sessions that followed. Spellman called Polk and his legislative followers the “troglodyte wing of the Republican Party.”

Polk told Crosscut recently, “Things got pretty testy. They (Spellman’s allies in the GOP caucus) and the (minority) Democrats wanted to raise taxes. We thought that was the last thing you want to do when the economy’s in trouble. They finally got enough Democratic votes to pass a one percent sales tax increase over the leadership opposition.” They also initiated Washington’s first state lottery. Spellman approved it reluctantly, although he later told the Seattle Weekly he thought it was a “fraudulent” way for the state to raise money. (His criticism of the lottery softened somewhat later.)

Steve Excell, who was Spellman’s chief of staff, recalls that in the search for state revenue, “The legislature would go for anything that might bring in a dollar and 98 cents.” CBI offered millions in wages and taxes. It looked like a bargain version of the promised land, never mind the threat to a peculiar and fragile ecology that nourished the Northwest’s vital (in those days) fishing industry.

In Whatcom County, where the jobless rate had reached 11 percent, CBI moved its project through the local permitting process. The Whatcom County Council rewrote its own environmental regulations to accommodate the company’s drastic reshaping of the shoreline. That wasn’t enough. CBI needed a blanket exemption putting it beyond the reach of state departments of Ecology, Fisheries, and Public Lands, all with regulatory power at the shoreline and inshore waters, and all concerned about what the company wanted to do.

Bob Partlow, covering Olympia for the Bellingham Herald, wrote at the time: “Faced with a project that violated state and local shoreline regulations, the company decided to change the regulations rather than change the project. It turned to the legislature.”

CBI hired the three highest priced lobbyists in Olympia, and within a few months, all four legislative caucuses — Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate — lined up behind a bill granting a special exemption to the CBI property. The bill identified an area coinciding with the CBI property as “a shoreline of statewide economic significance,” something new in land use parlance where “economic considerations may take precedence over environmental considerations, so that the economic vitality of the state can be maintained or promoted.” The state Department of Fisheries warned that it would “eliminate habitat for the largest herring population in Washington and alter the migratory habits of salmon.”

Fast forward to 2011, and the 30-year old issues from the CBI fight are echoed in today’s arguments that swirl around the same Cherry Point site. Living-wage industrial jobs are even harder to find than in 1982. A huge corporation, this time SSA Marine, promises jobs and revenue. The company has signed up most of the Whatcom County political establishment (with the important exception of Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike) in support of its proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. It’s projected to ship 48 million metric tons of coal per year to Asia, along with 8 million tons of grain and phosphate. Chambers of commerce and organized labor have joined the corporation’s campaign for public support.

SSA Marine, while one of the world’s largest builders and operators of seaports, has taken a more polished approach than CBI to getting what it wants. It promises to abide by governmental restrictions placed on the project and says it will be the most scrutinized shoreline project ever, in terms of environmental protections. It’s hard to imagine SSA Marine launching a CBI-style legislative attack on the state’s shoreline protection laws. (Nicely detailed comments from an SSA Marine spokesman about its efforts to ensure the environment is protected are here, at the end of the post.)

Younger political junkies, if dragged from 2011 back to the early 1980’s, would wander lost for a while. The terminology and jargon of environmental politics were brand new. So was the environmental paradigm itself, for that matter. Local governments, notably Whatcom County, were hostile to the idea that business and industry had to restrain certain desires, in deference to air and water quality or fish, or birds. The time-machine passengers from 2011 would also find the nature of the political parties disorienting. Party doctrine seldom dictated legislative votes. Public policy grew from bipartisan thinking. Republicans of the Dan Evans persuasion had led, with Democratic support, in passing some of the most progressive environmental protections in the nation.

One of the most eloquent opponents of the CBI bill was conservative Republican House member Roger Van Dyken of Lynden. While his county GOP organization backed CBI at every turn, Van Dyken denounced the bill as “government by special interest” and urged the governor not to sign it. “The bill gives both Whatcom County and CBI a bad name,” he declared.

Van Dyken said recently that he voted as a good government conservative, not as an environmentalist. “I wasn’t entirely convinced by the environmental argument,” he said. “It was the special interest nature of the bill that offended me.” Voting against new industry in hard times may be courageous, but it’s politically costly. His Republican base turned against Van Dyken, and he lost his House seat in the following year.

Similarly, the late Democratic state Sen. Barney Goltz, an icon of Bellingham politics, called the bill “a blatant attempt to give special consideration to one project and try to muscle it through.” Yet he voted for it on final passage, with amendments which he said would help to protect the herring.

Democrats were divided. Young D’s, inheritors of the anti-war movement of the 1970’s, were shifting their energy to protecting natural resources. Led by Citizens for Sensible Industry, they protested, pamphleteered and turned out huge crowds at Whatcom County Planning Commission meetings, seeking to stop the CBI bulldozers. On the other hand, organized labor disdained the idea that herring, shorebirds, or salmon could rank with job security on any list of serious concerns.

The activists at Citizens for Sensible Industry got important help from Tacoma Boatbuilding Corporation, a rival of Chicago Bridge and Iron for the oil platform contracts. Tacoma Boat paid for a CSI lobbyist and for some damaging research. Digging into CBI history, Given-Seymour recalls, they found at least one occasion — in a different state — where the company fought successfully to have its property approved for industrial use and then sold the land at a huge gain, rather than following through on its promise of jobs and revenue. That revelation swung a few votes in Olympia, but not decisively. The activists may have won the argument, but they lost the vote.

“When it passed both houses,” Given-Seymour said, “we thought we were sunk. We were right up there in that corner office, that afternoon,” he said, pointing at an upper story window in the triangular office building across from Black Drop Coffee in downtown Bellingham. “We were working on the language of our announcement, really discouraged, trying to figure how we could raise enough money to fight it in court. That’s where we were when we got the word.”

The word was something completely unexpected: John Spellman had vetoed the CBI bill. “Nobody in Olympia could believe it,” Bob Partlow recalls. “The chief lobbyist for CBI looked like his best friend had been hung. “

Spellman says it was the hardest decision he had to make as governor. “I sweated this one out to the last minute,” he told Crosscut. “If I could have found a way to justify the bill economically or otherwise, I would have. But it was just too destructive, and too damaging to the fishery.” And a damaging precedent for state government. “This was legislation by exception. When you start doing that you punish those who have followed the law.”

The corporation’s effort didn’t end with the veto. CBI lobbyists organized a legislative blitz to override Spellman’s action, and almost won. Steve Excell was responsible for holding the line in the House. He recalls a chance conversation with then-Finance Director Don Burrows, that marked a turning point. “Don heard me talking it over with someone else. He said ‘CBI? Whoa, we just won a big tax evasion case against them.’ ” The state Supreme Court had ruled just days before, against a Chicago Bridge and Iron scheme to avoid Washington taxes by conducting business across the state line in Idaho. “We papered every legislator’s desk with that news, as fast as we could,” Excell says. “The members began to say ‘if they’ll do that, what else will they do?’ ” Even so, the industry bill to override Spellman's veto passed the state Senate, but failed in the House by a few votes.

Chicago Bridge and Iron moved on. It’s a huge multi-national specializing in gas and oil construction projects. It still carries the Chicago name, with headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands.

By the time Spellman’s political career ended in 1984, he had blocked three separate efforts to develop Cherry Point in ways that he considered dangerous. Northern Tier Pipeline wanted to pipe crude oil under Puget Sound from Port Angeles, headed for Minnesota. The governor vetoed it despite personal lobbying by President Reagan’s secretary of the interior, James Watt. Too great a chance of an oil spill in the Sound. In 1984, a few months before election day, Spellman turned down another proposal, by the Peter Kewitt firm, that would have dredged a channel through the Cherry Point tidelands to float oil platforms into the Strait.

Election day was a disaster for Spellman. Democrat Booth Gardner overwhelmed him, 53 percent to 46 percent. It’s hard to know how much Spellman’s actions against his own party’s desires had to do with the outcome. Ex-reporter Partlow, who now directs foster care programs at the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, believes CBI was a factor, but not the most important one. “There were a million reasons for Spellman losing and every one of them represents a dollar that Booth Gardner had, and Spellman didn’t have,” Partlow says.

Spellman, now 84, practices law at Carney Badley Spellman in Seattle, with no shadow of a misgiving about his veto of three Cherry Point industrial projects, all favored by the leadership of his party. He says of the CBI veto, “I studied it as long as I could, but once it was done I was happy with it. I slept much better than I would if I had signed it.”

Early in the Chicago Bridge and Iron fight, Lois Garlick of Bellingham decided that someone had better keep a record of all this. Her treasury of letters and newspaper clippings is preserved as the Garlick Collections in the State Archives at the Barney Goltz building, across the street from the Western Washington University campus. It includes Bob Partlow’s superb accounts of a tumultuous moment when Washington politics and business practices collided with an emerging sense of environmental ethics.

At one of several stormy Whatcom County hearings on the CBI proposal, the late Dr. Hugh Fleetwood, professor of Philosophy at WWU, laid down a caution for any official about to hand over public resources to be exploited for corporate profits. “The desire for gain,” Fleetwood warned, “makes the mind as fuzzy as the use of drugs. It is an unsuitable basis for decisions concerning the public interest.”


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.