Coal fight takes lead role in Bellingham, Whatcom elections

Both candidates for mayor now say they oppose a proposed coal-shipping port at Cherry Point, but the real action may be in the Whatcom County executive contest.

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Both candidates for mayor now say they oppose a proposed coal-shipping port at Cherry Point, but the real action may be in the Whatcom County executive contest.

Lawn signs sprout like fall mushrooms in Whatcom County as people take sides in two hotly contested races that could be of vital importance in the struggle over plans to build the nation’s largest coal-export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.

But it is a little blue sign that began popping up in Bellingham neighborhoods that seems to have put coal opponents into the driver’s seat in the mayoralty race. Another Family Voting Against Coal Trains was placed on lawns by Whatcom Conservation Voters, which is also supporting Mayor Dan Pike’s campaign for re-election. The signs prompted a spirited reaction from backers of challenger Kelli Linville, ultimately concluding Thursday (Oct. 20) when Linville joined Pike in expressing strong opposition to the export terminal. That left no doubt that opponent of the terminal will lead City Hall as applications go forward.

In a sometimes-heated debate Thursday at Western Washington University, Linville insisted that she had always opposed the SSA Marine project, even before Pike announced his opposition in June. “I agree with the mayor,” she stated, adding that as early as October 2010 she said she could not support the plan, “because it was coal.” Linville, however, also had previously maintained that she would not take a final public position on the terminal until formal hearings are slated — sometime next year, long after the mayoralty election. "I support the public process; let it work its way through," she told Crosscut in June, in reaction to Pike’s statement of opposition.

That position — Linville is a firm believer in process, beginning and ending her Thursday night debate statements with a plea for process — led terminal opponents to charge she was equivocating. She admitted as much in a Thursday afternoon telephone conversation, attributing it to her legislative nature of always looking for options before making final commitments. But she was already firming her position.

“I don’t think they can make the case that this is a multi-purpose terminal,” she told me.  “I said I supported a multi-purpose pier, they said this is a multi-purpose pier; but their only contract is for coal. That’s not the multi-purpose pier I’ve supported.” SSA Marine plans a terminal shipping 54 million tons of bulk commodities a year; 48 million tons would be coal. The coal would bring 18 unit trains a year through Bellingham, each a mile and a half long, running alongside some of the city’s prime real estate. Both Linville and Pike have been pushing terminal sponsors to mitigate effects of the train traffic, if the terminal is built.

Mayor Pike has spearheaded an effort to get mayors all along the coal-train route to oppose the shipments, and the mayors of Seattle and Spokane have expressed support. With Thursday’s developments, Bellingham remains in position opposing the terminal, although the candidates may still debate who-was-for-what-and-when and matters of advocacy vs. process. The race is considered too close to call; Pike won the primary by only 28 votes. Candidates have one more debate, Wednesday (Oct. 26) at Bellingham City Club.

While Bellingham City Hall can play a key role in mobilizing public opinion and pressing for mitigation of the impact of added coal trains (six coal trains a day already run through the city en route to a terminal south of Vancouver, B.C.), the city has no vote on the terminal because it would be outside the city, in Whatcom County on an industrial site that already contains two oil refineries and an aluminum plant. .

An attendant contest for Whatcom County executive may ultimately play a larger role in the export terminal’s future. The position is open and two Republicans, State Sen. Doug Ericksen and former Lynden Mayor Jack Louws, defeated two Democrats in the nonpartisan primary.

Whatcom County is co-lead agency for environmental review of terminal applications, along with the Washington Department of Ecology; other state and federal agencies also have a role. The new county executive could play a big role in setting the tone for county planners who oversee the process.

Ericksen is an outspoken backer of the terminal, and has also made it clear that he plans to shake up county government if he is elected. He is known as a partisan Republican, and liberals in Bellingham are rallying behind Louws, who has not stated a position on the export terminal.

Ericksen, a legislator since 1999, has the advantage of a familiar name seen every two years on large signs on major roads. He won 36.4 percent of the primary vote, to 28.4 percent for Louws. Louws has drawn attention with an unusual lawn sign, proclaiming “I Know Jack,” a play on an old saying that may be unfamiliar to younger voters, who might associate it mainly with the thrash-metal band Megadeth’s popular song of the same name.

In a recent comment, Ericksen criticized Louws for staying neutral on the terminal. But, unlike the mayor of Bellingham, the Whatcom County executive controls the staff that deals with applications and environmental review; coal opponents fear that Ericksen will stack the deck in favor of the terminal. His environmental “score card” in the Washington House (through 2010) was 31 percent in the Washington Conservation Voters rating, among the highest for Republicans but below all but one Democrat.

SSA Marine acknowledges that the major export planned for the terminal will be coal from the Powder River Basin, destined for Asian power plants and factories, but the terminal developer has always described itself as multi-purpose; its most recent campaign brochure lists export targets as grain, potash, and coal (in that order).

Linville notes that she supported a smaller terminal in 1997 and still does; that terminal did not plan to export coal. “I want a pier, I don’t oppose all terminals, just coal,” she adds. Pike and some other coal opponents have also said they could back a smaller terminal, without coal. There has been no indication, however, that SSA Marine has any intention of backing away from coal, which is the hot commodity right now and for the foreseeable future. Existing Pacific Northwest ports appear to have adequate capacity to handle any increase in grain exports.

As election nears, the plethora of “No Coal Train” signs and flyers appears to have prompted SSA Marine to counter with its own materials, delivered by mail and by paid canvassers recruited by the terminal. The brochures emphasize jobs, estimating between 850 and 1250 new jobs when the terminal is operating full-force; the figure includes off-site jobs such as sailors, railroad engineers, and employees of nearby restaurants, bars, motels, and stores that would benefit from payroll spending.

An attempt to counter the powerful economic argument is being made by a small group of real-estate professionals, who argue that home values in proximity of the railroad lines are already being devalued because of fear that the 18 more daily unit trains will adversely impact property values. Whatcom Real Estate Professionals Against Coal Trains is small (about 40 members) compared over 500 members in the Whatcom Association of Realtors.

“This is a very wonderful community, so many people are here for quality of life,” says Danne Neill, one of the founders, “We can do better (than exporting coal).” Neill and others in the group cite unusually high rates of homes for sale along Chuckanut Drive, the scenic highway south of Bellingham, which borders the BNSF rail tracks. An informal count of “for sale” signs along a five-mile stretch of Chuckanut Drive earlier this summer showed 15 properties for sale; two weeks ago, 12 still remained for sale, well above normal for this view location.

There has always been a trade-off for view homes facing Puget Sound and also located near the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks, which follow the Sound through much of Western Washington. Owners of many of the highest-priced homes in and south of Bellingham are acutely aware of noise and vibration from the coal trains, and the prospect of more than doubling the rail traffic has prompted opposition from these quarters, amidst fear of declining home values. Similar situations exist between Everett and Seattle, an area also subject to increased landslides in 2010. But homeowners, and real-estate agents, are reluctant to call attention to those concerns, wary of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The contradictions between economic development through exports and the lure of livability is a big part of the Bellingham debate; most recently it was the topic of a feature article on National Geographic Daily News. National climate-change activists have targeted Bellingham and Cherry Point as the next big battle to cut back burning of fossil fuel, while coal giant Peabody has already contracted to fill half of the coal capacity at Cherry Point and sees no end in sight to Asian demand for American coal.

Thursday’s alignment of Bellingham mayoralty candidates provides an impetus for coal opponents, but is hardly a paradigm shifter; smart money is still on big money, and terminal backers have that.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.