BELLINGHAM - Over the objections of Mayor Kelli Linville and Council President Terry Bornemann, City Council has taken a tentative step toward a non-binding citizen advisory vote to gauge public opinion on the shipment of coal by rail through the city.
At a Monday, July 23, committee session, council voted 5-2 to ask Linville and city legal staff to prepare a ballot measure for council review at their Aug. 6 meeting - a day before the deadline for measures to be added to the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
Council members Jack Weiss and Michael Lilliquist pushed the idea of a ballot measure that would give city residents three choices: support the shipment of coal, oppose the shipment of coal or no opinion/undecided.
"It's unclear what the community really does believe about this proposal," Weiss said. "I think it's important for us to understand if there is a strong sentiment one way or the other."
The ballot measure idea was triggered by SSA Marine's Gateway Pacific Terminal coal shipping pier project proposed for Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. As many as nine loaded trains - mostly full of coal - would pass through Bellingham daily en route to the terminal if it is built, and would return to Powder River Basin coal mines on the same route.
Environmental concerns about the health and traffic impacts of those trains prompted a citizen initiative measure to outlaw their passage through the city, but city attorneys advised the council that the ordinance the No Coal! initiative would create could not withstand legal scrutiny. The council then agreed to go to Whatcom County Superior Court to seek a court order that would keep the initiative off the ballot. A hearing on that matter is scheduled for Aug. 3 before Judge Charles Snyder.
At 6 p.m. Monday, an hour before the council's regular session, about 75 labor union members gathered in front of City Hall to express their support for the jobs they hope Gateway Pacific can deliver.
Mark Lowry, president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, said union members had been concerned about a resolution before the council that called for Gateway Pacific to undergo a sweeping "programmatic environmental impact statement." Lowry sees that as a new level of regulatory scrutiny that could force SSA Marine to abandon the project, while discouraging other industries from proposing their own job-creating projects.
Lowry said he was reassured to learn that during an afternoon discussion, the council had amended their resolution to call for a study of "cumulative impacts" instead of a programmatic" study.
"We're not asking for this project and this company to be unaccountable, but it needs to be a fair process," Lowry said. "We shouldn't throw away a billion-dollar project away for philosophical reasons."
Glenn Farmer, business representative of the International Association of Machinists Local 2379 at Alcoa Intalco Works, agreed.
"We want to see a realistic assessment of what it (Gateway Pacific) really means," Farmer said. "We've got our houses and families here, and we don't want to mess the environment up either."
Earlier, during the afternoon discussion on the non-binding advisory vote, Council member Gene Knutson acknowledged that the County Council, not the City Council, will be voting on whether to approve SSA Marine's terminal project. But he also noted that more than 7,000 people signed the original city initiative petitions in hope of getting a chance to vote on the coal train issue. A referendum, even if non-binding, would acknowledge their wishes.
"At least they will get their voice heard," Knutson said. "I think this is going to be one of the closest votes we've ever had. ... I think this is one of the most divisive proposals that's ever come forward in this community."
Bornemann replied that the backers of the No Coal! initiative got people to sign their petition under the "false hope" that the initiative could stop coal trains. Bornemann said the same would be true of a city advisory vote, since that vote won't give the City Council any more power to influence events.
"We're setting up a false hope with this," Bornemann said. "Advisory votes imply an action. What action are we gong to take on this?"
"A citizen vote creates the clarity that we need," Lilliquist said. "Now we're going forward knowing what the people want us to achieve. ... Right now we're reading the tea leaves."
Bornemann then asked what would happen if a majority of citizens approve the coal shipments. Would that mean that the City Council should stop asking regulatory agencies to consider the traffic and health impacts of coals shipments through the city?
Cathy Lehman shared that concern.
"I think we're in danger of losing a lot and I'm not sure how much we have to gain," Lehman said. "What more would we do that we're not doing?"
Seth Fleetwood also expressed doubt about the wisdom of a non-binding vote but said he wanted to move ahead and get a ballot measure drawn up for council to consider.
Linville said the council could hold public hearings to get a sense of community sentiment. She too said it was hard to understand the purpose of an advisory vote, since the council has no direct role to play in the regulatory process.
She said the best action the council could take was the passage of a resolution calling for sweeping review of the impacts of this and other proposed coal terminals on Bellingham and the rest of the region. The council was scheduled to work out the language of that resolution late in its Monday night regular session.
But Lilliquist said the resolution would take no position for or against coal shipments, and he wanted to give city residents the chance to take such a position in November.
When a vote was taken, Stan Snapp joined Fleetwood, Lilliquist, Knutson and Weiss in voting to move ahead with the non-binding measure. Bornemann and Lehman voted no.
By 6:30, a half-hour before the start of the evening meeting, the 125-seat council chambers was nearly full, with an audience that included coal terminal opponents as well as union members.