Environmental stances critical for Whatcom County Council election

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 22, 2013 

The Whatcom County chapter of the Washington Conservation Voters works to elect community leaders who will protect and restore environmental health and promote economic sustainability. This election season, we would like to remind citizens of the important issues facing our community, and why that makes your vote so important.

By now, most people in Whatcom County have heard of the proposal to build a coal export terminal at Cherry Point. In the past weeks, there have been several developments, and we take this opportunity to tie different pieces of the story together.

Since the beginning, SSA Marine, the project proponent, has said that they would adhere to environmental protections, conform to the law, respect tribal sites and culture. Recent news calls this into question. Pacific International Terminals (SSA Marine's parent company) settled out of court and agreed to pay $1.6 million in damages for bulldozing more than five miles of forests, wetlands and Lummi ancestral gravesites. The company claimed that the action was a mistake. Others in the community argued that it was clearly intentional given how far the bulldozed area was from where they were permitted to drill test wells. Regardless of whether it was willfulness or negligence, the settlement makes clear that they did not prioritize keeping their promises to the community - especially not their promises to respect the Lummi ancestral sites. It's something to think about as we hear SSA making lots of promises about the jobs they'll create, the tax benefits they'll offer, and so on. With a company we don't trust, we need oversight from elected officials who will hold them accountable.

We recently learned that the scope of the environmental impact statement will be broad, but we also learned that the Army Corps of Engineers won't consider all of the impacts. So we need to be doubly sure that the local people deciding whether to issue the permit will read the environmental impact statement from beginning to end, and that they understand all of the issues it deals with. This makes County Council elections more important than ever.

While most of the candidates running will tell you that they can't prejudge the coal terminal, citizens should dig deeper. We deserve to know more. We can learn what these candidates have done in the past to avert global climate change or to improve water quality in Puget Sound. We should know if they are inclined to proposals that come with huge costs to the public, such as hundreds of millions for railroad crossing improvements. We deserve to know if they would insist on accountability provisions to ensure that future promises are kept.

Unfortunately, voters lost an important opportunity to learn about how these candidates think about similar issues when four candidates refused to attend a forum about growth and the environment. Of course in busy campaigns sometimes there will be scheduling conflicts. But two of the candidates openly refused, and the others claimed they were unavailable after being consulted about the date the forum was to be held.

Growth and the environment are some of the most important issues faced by elected officials in county government. Kathy Kershner, Ben Elenbaas, Bill Knutzen and Michelle Luke wouldn't take the time to tell people what they think about protecting farmland or safeguarding drinking water.

Learning how these candidates would approach other development projects could shed a lot of light for those of us with questions about the coal terminal. Candidates who want to represent us should be open with us about what their positions and ideas are. It is a disservice to the community that they chose to not to tell us where they stand.

It is now clear that SSA needs to be watched more carefully than ever. Correspondingly, we need elected leaders that we know have the wisdom, the character and the disposition to approach this issue with the broad public interest in mind. That is why it is such a disappointment when candidates skip forums and refuse to answer voters' questions, because it denies voters the opportunity to choose the best candidate for the job.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Bob Aegerter and Isabel Vanderslice wrote this on behalf of the Whatcom Chapter of the Washington Conservation Voters. Go to wcvoters.org/counties/Whatcom for more information about the group.

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