Whatcom council member seeks more oversight of coal terminal

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 7, 2014 

A Whatcom County Council member wants the council to have authority to approve changes to the environmental review of a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point.

Chairman Carl Weimer has introduced an ordinance for the council to consider Tuesday, Feb. 11, that takes the authority to approve contract amendments from the county executive and gives it to the council.

An attorney representing the terminal's proponent wrote a letter to the council on Friday, Feb. 7, saying this change would be illegal.

County Executive Jack Louws in 2013 approved three changes, totaling almost $1 million, to the county's contract with CH2M Hill, the consulting firm that will write a report detailing anticipated environmental impacts of the terminal. The project's proponent, SSA Marine, is paying for the firm's work, so council approval was not required for the changes.

The first two changes were made to handle the unprecedented public input on the project. CH2M Hill, and county, state and federal governments had to sort through 125,000 comments on what the scope of the environmental review should be. The third contract change, in July 2013, was approved to make some progress on the environmental review after the county got word that the impact statement would be delayed.

Weimer's proposed ordinance would require council approval of contract amendments just as the county is about to sign a major amendment with CH2M Hill. This change would clear the way for the consultant to begin working on the impact statement. The draft statement will take at least 13 months to complete.

The Feb. 7 letter from attorney William T. Lynn, representing SSA Marine, said Weimer's ordinance is contrary to state law and the county charter, and violates the separation of powers between the council and the executive. Lynn encouraged the council to "quickly reject" the ordinance.

"It is deeply troubling that the proposal has been made to interfere with this separation of powers," the letter states. "It certainly finds no support in the name of 'open transparent government.'"

Council member Sam Crawford said the proposed ordinance amounts to too much review of project minutiae. It could create the false impression that the public will be able to convince the council to halt the process over a small change.

"I think that's too much and that's unnecessary," Crawford said of the proposed change to county law. "The public may ultimately end up disappointed."

"I want to ensure that there's a lot of public input ... but I think the way it's set up allows for that," Crawford said.

Weimer said his intent was not to invite public comment but to bring the changes into the open. People on both the political right and left have called for this, he said.

"The way our code is written right now, (the executive) can write these contract changes. What we've heard from the public is, that doesn't make any sense," Weimer said.

The council will consider Weimer's ordinance at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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