The way forward
THE WAY FORWARD: Bereft of their single strong champion, ’hamsters power forward in their fight against coal.
Former Mayor Dan Pike was a guest of talk show host Steve Scher on KUOW-FM last week, continuing to express his concerns about the Gateway Pacific coal terminal proposed at Cherry Point and its potential impacts on Bellingham’s central waterfront. Pike is currently under contract with Seattle’s Sightline Institute, collecting data on coal and coal transport for the nonprofit research and communications center.
Pike, who campaigned strongly against coal, sketched the potential impacts of a train up to two miles long crossing through Bellingham for up to 10 minutes each hour, every hour, ferrying up to 56 million tons of coal per year to a proposed export facility west of Ferndale. The trade-off benefits, Pike said, were taxes and revenues related to the construction of the facility, and the creation of perhaps 300 permanent jobs.
Pike’s concerns were echoed by King County Executive Dow Constantine in a letter last month to Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws and the director of the state Dept. of Ecology.
“I am concerned about the significant impacts of this proposal on air, water, energy and natural resources, environmental health, land and shoreline use, public services, and transportation in communities along the rail corridor” that stretches south to Longview, then east to Spokane, the King County Democrat noted in his letter.
Pike commented to Scher that up to 55 percent of the residents of Washington live in areas transected by the rail line, making it indeed a project of statewide significance.
“Washington’s environmental, labor, political and business interests came together to phase out the only remaining coal-fired power plant in the state,” Constantine noted. “Exporting finite, domestic natural resources for short-term financial gain, while harming our environment and precluding more value-added economic development, would be a giant step backward.”
The enlarging scope of statewide impacts was telegraphed last summer by the involvement of Ecology as co-lead in the environmental impact statement (EIS) county planners will prepare. Indeed, representatives of Pacific International Terminals, a division of SSA Marine, have now asked for two extensions to their permit application, the most recent arriving in December, for work the company projected might be completed at this point.
“Several actions that we had hoped to be accomplished by now have not yet occurred,” SSA Marine Vice President Skip Sahlin wrote to planners, “key components of which are outside of our control.”
Some opponents of the proposed terminal believe state requirements for environmental review and mitigation of those impacts alone may be sufficient to halt the project; other opponents aren’t so sure, believing state guidelines and processes that provide for such facilities preordain that they will be built. The difference of opinion has created a small schism among activists, and between Bellingham residents and those in the rural county.
A new group launched earlier this month called Protect Whatcom. The group, headed by retired public interest attorney Terry Wechsler, believes the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) sets a high standard that could block SSA Marine’s plans if studies show the coal terminal could not be built without harm to the environment.
“While Whatcom County cannot solve trade imbalances, the decline of manufacturing in this nation, or any other impact of globalization, we can do our part to protect our nation’s natural resources and advocate on behalf of the health of our local communities, economies, and good job initiatives,” the group announced at the launch of their efforts.
Wechsler expressed gentle skepticism that a local initiative that seeks to block coal trains from passing through Bellingham would ultimately be successful.
Coal-Free Bellingham launched last month with the aim of putting a community bill of rights on the ballot, challenging the authority of distant corporations to create the significant local impacts associated with coal freight.
“Existing environmental laws are supported by a legal structure that favors corporations, property and commerce over people, communities and nature,” Stoney Bird explained. Bird is a former corporate attorney who helped draft the initiative. “Municipalities have no intrinsic rights. Under legal concepts developed in the 19th century, municipalities have only the powers that the state says they have, and indeed exist only if the state says that they do,” he said.
Yet it seems the path of the initiative is a well-worn one, and predictable. Its legal authority will be challenged in court, and the courts will undoubtedly find—as they so often have in Bellingham’s scarred history with direct democracy—the ban exceeds the scope of local authority, and is not a matter subject to referendum. If it is not blocked from the ballot entirely, we might predict its cautions will be advisory.
Even if successful, and trains must route around the city to a line in the east county, the measure pits the interests of Bellingham against the wider county, some critics complain.
A third group, Safeguard the South Fork, seeks to protect the agricultural and environmental integrity in the Nooksack River watershed from the impacts of coal freight, advocating county interests.
“The ‘Farmland–Coal Port Route’ is a contingency that has until recently escaped scrutiny,” said Jeff Margolis, a spokesperson for the group. ”With the advent of a major political effort by Bellingham activists and the prospect of BNSF’s ballooning coal and freight traffic backing up on the single track south of Edgemoor, the probability of a ‘coal chain’ being rerouted from Mount Vernon, looped from one side of Whatcom County to the other, is increasingly likely,” the Van Zandt merchant warned.
The group plans a series of evening forums in granges and community halls throughout the county in March and April.
Not content to stay out of the discussion, the islands hosted a series of forums last week, entitled Ships, Spills & Sea Life: The Coal Hard Truth, detailing the potential hazards to the marine environment from scores of Cape-sized vessels entering Puget Sound. The forums were sponsored the North Sound Baykeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and their public advocacy group, Power Past Coal.
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