Whatcom County residents made history in a variety of ways in 2012. A Sandy Point boy traveled to the Vatican and met the pope as his recovery from flesh-eating bacteria was the final miracle needed for the canonization of a saint. Local voters joined the state in approving legalization of marijuana and gay marriage.
The county said goodbye to its biggest resort (at least temporarily) and hello to its largest movie theater. And it lost two residents in a massive harbor fire.
But by far the biggest story of 2012 in the county was the battle over the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal that would export coal out of Cherry Point.
Here are the top 10 local news stories of 2012, in no particular order, as chosen by The Bellingham Herald news reporters.
BP FIRE FUELS GAS PRICE SURGE
A fire at BP Cherry Point kicked off what was to be a volatile year when it came to gas prices.
The Feb. 17 fire in the crude vacuum distillation unit forced the refinery to shut down, and it was not fully operational until the end of May. No one was seriously injured in the fire.
The impact was immediately felt at gas pumps. The average price for a gallon of gas in Bellingham shot up past $4 a gallon. At the time of the refinery restart in May, the average gas price in Bellingham was around $4.35 a gallon.
Gas price volatility continued into the summer months on the West Coast, particularly after a refinery fire shut operations at a Richmond, Calif., facility.
- DAVE GALLAGHER
POT, GAY MARRIAGE VOTED IN
Whatcom County voters joined the rest of the state in making history Nov. 6 when they approved gay marriage and legalized marijuana.
Washington state was one of three - Maryland and Maine were the other two - in which voters allowed lesbians and gay men to tie the knot.
County voters here approved marriage for same-sex couples by 55 percent.
Some county residents who had been together for decades hailed the decision that allowed them to finally marry. The first weddings were held as soon as the law allowed, on Dec. 9.
As for legalizing marijuana, county voters approved that by nearly 57 percent - helping to make Washington one of two states to legalize the recreational use of pot. The other was Colorado.
- KIE RELYEA
BELLINGHAM AXES TRAFFIC CAMERAS
An unpopular plan to install traffic enforcement cameras at six locations in Bellingham was scrapped March 26 when the City Council voted to get out of a contract with the vendor, with a $100,000 buyout.
Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman brought his weight to bear on the issue, calling the cameras "a taxation-through-citation scheme." Bellingham voters advised against the cameras by more than a 2-to-1 margin on the November 2011 ballot.
While the advisory vote carried a lot of weight, the cameras' fate may have been sealed after Kelli Linville, a camera opponent, replaced Dan Pike in the mayor's office. Pike signed the initial contract with the vendor, American Traffic Solutions of Arizona, in 2011 despite emerging public opposition.
- RALPH SCHWARTZ
CONTROVERSY FILLS PORT'S YEAR
The Port of Bellingham was caught up in a public uproar in April after commissioners voted to fire Executive Director Charlie Sheldon in a 2-1 vote.
In the months leading up to the firing, Commissioner Scott Walker made no secret of his displeasure with Sheldon, calling for his resignation for varying reasons but getting no support from fellow commissioners Jim Jorgensen and Mike McAuley.
Details of what happened next were never revealed, but the weekend before the firing port staffers talked to Jorgensen and convinced him to join Walker in forcing Sheldon's ouster, over McAuley's heated objections.
Sheldon supporters packed the commission chambers but could not convince Jorgensen or Walker to change their mind.
Later in the year, in another 2-1 vote, Jorgensen and McAuley agreed to place a measure on the November ballot to expand the port commission to five members. But that measure was narrowly defeated in countywide balloting.
Days after the election, port commissioners stirred up more discord by unanimously agreeing on Rob Fix, the interim director, as Sheldon's permanent replacement. Earlier, commissioners had said Fix, the port's chief financial officer, was not a candidate for the position. They had brought three other candidates, billed as finalists, to Bellingham for a public reception and private review by a citizen panel.
- JOHN STARK
BARKLEY MOVIE THEATER OPENS
With its IMAX and 3D screens, the opening of the new Barkley movie theater became one of the more anticipated events of the year.
During its community preview days Dec. 10-12, Regal Cinema's new theater took in about 23,500 people. On Dec. 13, with a midnight showing of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," nearly 1,500 people were in line for the movie.
At 68,000 square feet, the new theater has 16 screens and is about the same size as the nearby Barkley Haggen store. The three-day preview event raised $97,000 for local charities.
The Sehome and Sunset Regal theaters closed when the Barkley theater opened.
- DAVE GALLAGHER
SEMIAHMOO HOTEL SHUTS DOWN
The once-grand Semiahmoo Hotel in Blaine shut down Dec. 1, putting more than 200 people out of work and dealing a painful blow to the city's finances.
A representative of the hotel's majority owner, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, said negotiations to find a new owner were ongoing, but as 2012 drew to a close there was no good news.
The tribal spokesman cited a long downturn in convention and conference business for the shutdown.
The hotel is located on the end of Semiahmoo Spit, a narrow stretch of land on the west side of Drayton Harbor that once housed a salmon cannery. It had been among the largest resorts in the state, with close to 200 guest rooms and suites.
The hotel opened in 1987. It had been the brainchild of Bellingham developer David Syre and his Trillium Corp., and court documents indicate that Syre's personal financial woes had complicated efforts to complete a sale. Trillium remained a part-owner of the hotel after selling a majority ownership to the Upper Skagit tribe in 2003.
- JOHN STARK
JAKE FINKBONNER ATTENDS CANONIZATION
Jake Finkbonner and his family were among the thousands of people who traveled to Rome to witness the Oct. 21 canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first American Indian saint in the Catholic Church.
The link between the Mohawk Indian, who lived in the 17th century, and the Sandy Point boy, who is of Lummi tribal descent, began soon after Feb. 11, 2006.
That was when Jake, then 5, fell and bumped his mouth in the closing moments of a basketball game and became infected with necrotizing fasciitis - better known as flesh-eating bacteria - which spread across his face and chest and nearly killed the boy.
The church last December ruled his recovery, following prayers and the placing of a relic of Kateri on his body, to be a miracle that was beyond the explanation of medicine, and that cemented Kateri's canonization.
COMMUNITY DIVIDED OVER COAL TERMINAL
Although years of regulatory scrutiny over a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point are still to come, public argument over the project raged throughout 2012.
Gateway Pacific Terminal, proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle at an industrial site south of the BP Cherry Point refinery, would be a loading point for coal and perhaps other bulk cargoes shipped to the pier by rail. At maximum capacity it could ship 54 million tons of bulk commodities a year, including 48 million tons of coal, to markets in Asia.
Backers say it would generate millions in tax revenue, thousands of short-term construction jobs and more than 1,000 direct and indirect permanent jobs.
Opponents say the project would disrupt life in Bellingham and other places with as many as 18 additional trains rumbling daily through the city, snarling traffic at crossings and causing health problems from diesel exhaust, while worsening climate change from coal-burning in Asia.
In the final months of 2012, supporters and opponents tried to outdo each other packing meetings meant to gather public input on the scope of environmental and economic study that must take place before regulatory agencies decide whether to issue permits for the project.
Earlier in the year, opponents got enough ballot signatures for a citywide vote to create a new city ordinance asserting a municipal right to prohibit coal train traffic through the city. But Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder ruled the city had no right to impose such an ordinance, and ordered the measure off the ballot.
- JOHN STARK
PLASTIC BAG BAN BEGINS
Reusable bags were the must-have item of 2012 as Bellingham's plastic bag ban took effect over the summer.
Grocers and other retailers stopped offering single-use plastic bags at checkout Aug. 1, with many offering paper bags at 5 cents apiece. The ban was approved by the City Council in July 2011.
Shoppers and business owners appeared to adjust pretty easily to the ban, although for some people it took a few return trips to their car to get in the habit of bringing reusable totes into the store.
- ZOE FRALEY
SQUALICUM HARBOR FIRE KILLS COUPLE
A married couple died in a boat fire in Bellingham's Squalicum Harbor on March 30. Jim Langei and Sterling Taylor were aboard their 42-foot recreational trawler, "Breakwind," when an early-morning fire engulfed a row of boathouses at Gate 3, G Dock East.
Firefighters couldn't save the couple. A dozen boats were destroyed in the inferno. It took until late April to clean up the wreckage.
In the months that followed, investigators sifted through a mountain of debris and other clues trying to figure out what caused the fire. They focused on alleged shoddy wiring in the boathouses and past problems Langei and Taylor had with their breakers tripping.
Officials with the Bellingham Fire Department, the Port of Bellingham and the city have since updated the fire code in the harbor. For example, large boathouses are now required to have automatic sprinklers, and city inspectors must visit boathouses once a year.
- CALEB HUTTON
TOP LOCAL ONLINE STORIES OF 2012
Here are the top local news stories posted to BellinghamHerald.com in 2012 as counted by page views.
1. Plane makes emergency landing on I-5 north of Bellingham (story generated more than 34,000 page views.)
2. Bellingham-area boy, 10, dies after apparent accidental hanging (about local magician Caleb Kors).
3. Lynden woman, daughter killed in crash near Everson (deaths of Shyla Alsum, 29, and her daughter Jaidyn Alsum, 6).
4. Two dead in two-car collision west of Lynden (deaths of Harvey G. Valnes, 65, and Shannon R. Valnes, 36).
5. Blaine man dies after Kline Road crash; driver arrested (death of Axl Aron Markuson, 21).
6. Lynden man heading to work killed in early-morning crash (death of Oracio Padilla, 23).
7. WWU student's death ruled suicide after eight-story fall from dorm building.
8. Bald eagle snatches fisherman's catch at Lake Padden.
9. Police: Bellingham man, 75, holds teen burglars at gunpoint.
10. Man dead after gang confrontation in Maple Falls (death of John Thomas "John-John" Anderson, 20).