Coal-export plan survives election cliffhangers

Neither side in the battle over exporting coal to China winds up with clear mandate in Bellingham and Whatcom County elections.

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Neither side in the battle over exporting coal to China winds up with clear mandate in Bellingham and Whatcom County elections.

It started out as a "mixed bag" election in Whatcom County on Nov. 8 and, after a week of nail-biting changes in two closely watched races, wound up in the same place for both sides of the controversy over a major export terminal that would be the nation's largest coal port.

Project opponents had put their hopes in five races; in the final counting they won two, lost one, and had ties of sorts in the other two. It would be impossible to determine any sort of mandate from an election that brought nearly 59 percent of county voters to the polls.

Ultimately, the familiar refrains of "liberal city vs. conservative county" showed up in the results for county offices. Whatcom County swings from one side to another every two or four years. Bellingham voters, about 40 percent of the county, generally select candidates favoring controls on growth; small-city and rural voters tend to favor candidates supporting more development. City Democrats and rural Republicans dominate in the respective areas, and nominal non-partisan races often wind up split along party lines. Such was the case in county races again this year.

Final results saw the defeat of Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike and candidate for county commission Christina Maginnis, both backed heavily by foes of the coal-export plans. Both lost by margins just outside the limits for an automatic recount. Pike needed another 40 votes to qualify for a recount against former Rep. Kelli Linville, who held a narrow lead from the opening count and held a lead Tuesday night (Nov. 15) of 12,426 to 12,262 with only an estimated 200 votes to count. Maginnis, a political newcomer challenging veteran County Commissioner Sam Crawford, lost by 467 votes; Crawford posted a margin of 30,970 to 30,503. Counting at the end of last week had seen the insurgent Maginnis pull ahead of Crawford, but she could not hold the lead as votes from rural areas poured in Monday and Tuesday.

Crawford has said he will be objective about the terminal. Fellow commissioner —and terminal backer —Tony Larson, lost to Pete Kremen, the outgoing county executive, in a race for re-election, giving terminal opponents a gain of one on the seven-member board. Kremen had a lead of 1,165 votes Tuesday. A third commission race saw veteran Barbara Brenner easily gain re-election; although conservation voters endorsed her opponent, Alan Black, Brenner has not taken a position on the coal port.

Maginnis, a stormwater specialist with the Department of Ecology, won by large majorities in nearly every Bellingham precinct, as well as precincts on the water in the county, on Lummi Island, and the Lummi peninsula and near Lake Whatcom. But Crawford had large majorities in Lynden and other small Whatcom cities.

Whatcom County commissioners will ultimately vote on both a major project permit and a shorelines substantial development permit before the project can proceed. In the case of the shoreline permit, state agencies will also play a role in final approval. The county, state Department of Ecology and U. S. Army Corps of Engineers are sharing the responsibility for putting together the lengthy environmental-impact studies that will ultimately go to the county and state.

Perhaps most important from the export terminal standpoint, Whatcom voters turned back the bid of state Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, a strong port backer, in the county executive's race. He polled only 46.1 percent against former Lynden Mayor Jack Louws, who had taken no stand on the port but was seen by port opponents as much more open to dialogue. The county executive oversees departments that are critical to review of the project applications.

Bellingham's elected officials have no vote on the project, although the city's residents are about 40 percent of the voting population of Whatcom County. City officials, including the mayor, may be expected to testify at various public hearings.

Pike was heavily supported in Bellingham precincts near the BNSF rail tracks, but Linville gained from name familiarity built up over 17 years in the Legislature representing most of north Bellingham. She stated opposition to coal exports, firming up her public statements late in the campaign, so the mayor's office remains in the hands of a terminal opponent. But few expect Linville to be as vocal in opposition as Pike.

Pike told Crosscut Tuesday night that he does not expect a recount, and did not see significance for the export terminal in his loss. "I think I owe (the loss) more to my early position supporting red-light cameras," he said, "Politically it was not a good decision." Bellingham voters rejected the controversial cameras by a 2-1 margin, in an advisory initiative vote.

Gateway Pacific is expected to file new applications for both shoreline and major project permits around the first of the year. Last June, Whatcom County told SSA Marine that a new shoreline major development permit would need to be filed. The company had argued that it needed only to update a 1997 shoreline permit but the county sent SSA Marine back to the drawing board because the new project is larger and also focuses on coal, which was not a commodity anticipated in 1997. An application for a major project permit was also rejected as incomplete.

When the new applications are filed, a process known as "scoping" begins, to determine what questions will be explored in the environmental reviews. This is an important process, because the terminal developers want the reviews to be limited to the 1,000-acre site at Cherry Point. Opponents, including land use lawyer and Western Washington University professor Jean Melious, argue that the off-site impacts, particularly of a major increase in coal-train traffic throughout much of Washington state, must be studied.

One effort to widen the scope begins this week in Bellingham; a team of economists from Public Financial Management Inc., a large national firm that works as an advisor to state and local governments, begins interviewing stakeholders in the Bellingham area. The economists were brought to the area by Communitywise Bellingham, which says it has a mission of providing factual information for the community in regard to the terminal proposal.

Two economic studies have been done for SSA Marine, first by Martin Associates, a national firm specializing in energy studies, and then by a local firm that reviewed the Martin report. Both emphasized economic benefits of the project's jobs, tax revenues and indirect income, but did not touch on negative impacts. The PFM consultants are being asked to research a scope that goes into negative as well as positive impacts.

As the process moves forward, terminal opponents continue to organize along the BNSF railroad line. The coal will follow the route now being used by at least six coal trains a day (full and empty returns) en route to the Westshore terminal south of Vancouver, B.C. The trains enter the state at Spokane, and run through Tri-Cities, down the Columbia River Gorge, and through Vancouver and along the BNSF tracks through Longview-Kelso, Centralia, Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, Mount Vernon, Bellingham, and Ferndale. Several of those communities — and Hood River and Portland across the Columbia — have hosted coal forums aimed at mobilizing community support. A forum this week in Portland drew about 250 people. Opposition is also organizing at Birch Bay, a small beach community that adjoins the proposed Gateway Pacific terminal site to the north.

This story has been edited to correct a characterization of Sam Crawford's position on the terminal proposal; a note from the reporter in the comments section explains the change.


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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.