It was a year Whatcom County news reflected the national conversation: E. coli illnesses, hate speech and the debate over incarceration vs. rehabilitation all made local headlines in 2015.
Some local stories also made national headlines. Who could forget the inspiring story of Bellingham teenager Amber Veatch, who survived a plane crash and two days lost in the Cascades with no food or water? Or Western Washington University canceling classes over social media threats?
One series of stories — exposing leaks on oil trains as they traveled through the state — led to the discovery of faulty valves on the train cars. It spurred federal regulators to order fixes.
Crime, Sports and Business each have their own lists this year, to be published over the next few days, though two local business stories had such a huge impact on the community we’ve included them in this list.
The following are the top 10 local news stories of the year, as chosen by the news reporting staff, in no particular order.
Little snow, lots of wildfires, drought
This was a tough year for skiers, snowboarders, farmers, fish and forests as Whatcom County and Washington state suffered through a dismal snowpack that gave way to unseasonably dry, hot weather that led to a statewide drought.
The impact wasn’t as great here as in the central and eastern parts of the state, but that wasn’t to say that we didn’t have our problems.
Mt. Baker Ski Area had a terrible ski season last winter, and the first two ski legs of the annual Ski to Sea race had to be changed because there was so little snow. Heat caused the death of 5,400 rainbow trout at the Whatcom Falls Park fish hatchery in August, and firefighters struggled during a summer of wildfires in British Columbia, California and in the North Cascades near Newhalem.
With so many fires, air quality in Whatcom County was poor at times.
The drought also hit local agriculture, with the Whatcom County raspberry harvest down by 26 percent.
On the plus side, this year offered up a phenomenal mountain hiking season that started earlier and lasted and lasted.
For example, the final 2.7 miles of the Mount Baker Highway to Artist Point opened May 14, seven weeks earlier than usual. It didn’t close because of winter snow until Nov. 1 — the latest closing on record.
Aloha motel condemned, leveled
The city of Bellingham officially got the court’s approval to condemn the Aloha Motel as a blight on Samish Way in February 2015, clearing the way for its ultimate demolition in November.
The motel had gained a reputation as a hub for illegal activity — neighboring business owners complained of finding used needles and condoms and witnessing drug deals; more than a third of the rooms were found unsuitable to live in due to unhealthy levels of methamphetamine contamination; and there were multiple deaths at the motel that were related to drug use or other criminal activity within the last year.
After the city announced in July that it had settled (as required under state law) on $1.58 million compensation to the owners, demolition plans got underway.
Many of those who were staying at the motel through its last days in August had been there long-term (against state policies) and said they had few options for other housing.
The motel was razed in November, and the city is reviewing proposals for how to use the land.
The rise and fall of Haggen
At the end of 2014, Haggen was on its way to growing from 18 grocery stores to 164 stores across five states. To put it mildly, things didn’t go well for the Bellingham-based grocer in 2015.
Haggen began the year finalizing the purchase of 146 stores from Albertsons and Safeway. It was part of a plan to gain approval from government regulators to approve a merger between Albertsons and Safeway. By spring, cracks were starting to show in this mega-deal as customers expressed displeasure about all the stores Haggen was trying to convert during a three-month period.
By the end of summer Albertsons and Haggen were suing each other for things that had gone wrong in the deal. On Sept. 8, Haggen filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. During bankruptcy the company has closed or auctioned off most of its stores; it currently has 33 core stores left, all of which are scheduled to be auctioned off Friday, Feb. 5.
Bellingham teen survives plane crash
Bellingham teenager Autumn Veatch lived to tell an incredible story of survival in July 2015 after a small plane she was on crashed in the North Cascades, killing her step-grandparents.
The Beech A35 aircraft was expected to land at the Lynden Airport on July 11, but instead ran into some bad weather and crashed somewhere near Easy Pass Trail, Rainy Pass and the unincorporated town of Mazama.
Veatch, 16, somehow survived the fiery crash and tried to help her step-grandparents Leland and Sharon Bowman out of the flames, but they died within seconds. She hiked away from the crash site without any food or water and her hand burned from the fire.
She spent two days lost and alone in the North Cascades wilderness — terrain that challenges the most experienced hikers — almost ready to give up. Eventually, however, she found Highway 20, where two men picked her up on the side of the road. She was later taken to the hospital.
Veatch’s tale of survival was national news, and she was bombarded with media interviews in the days after she was released from the hospital. She returned for her junior year at Bellingham High School months later.
Oil train leaks found in Washington state
An oil train delivered to BP Cherry Point refinery’s rail loop in November 2014 was found to have a car with 1,611 gallons of crude oil missing, with oil stains down the sides and on the wheels of the car.
State regulators learned of the spill a month later, when they got a copy of a federally required report BNSF filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
It wasn’t until January 2015 that the state Department of Ecology, which responds to inland oil spills, the U.S. Coast Guard, which responds to oil spills along navigable waterways, and the Whatcom County Unified Emergency Coordination Center were made aware of the incident after McClatchy reporter Curtis Tate found the spill report in a database and started asking questions.
Then, on Jan. 12 and 13, an oil train due for a Skagit County refinery had to have more than a dozen leaking cars removed at three separate stops across the state.
The Bellingham Herald was the first to report on that incident, which sparked an investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration into why the tank cars were leaking.
It was discovered that 1-, 2- and 3-inch valves manufactured by Tennessee-based company McKenzie were defective and had not been approved for use in tank cars. The FRA estimated roughly 6,000 tank cars could have the defective valves.
Owners, who were initially told to replace the valves within 60 days, were given an extension to replace them by Dec. 31, 2015. Meanwhile, owners have been able to use the tank cars equipped with defective valves to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials.
E. coli outbreak at Lynden fairgrounds
E. coli illnesses were in the news often this year, including the outbreak that sickened some 60 people at the Milk Makers Fest in April.
About 1,325 Whatcom County first-grade students from every school district in Whatcom County, plus the teachers and parents who accompanied them, went to the annual event April 21-23 at the Northwest Washington Fair & Event Center in Lynden. The event was designed to introduce young students to farming.
People who helped set up and take down the event — on April 20 and April 24 — also were among those who were sickened.
Public health officials from Whatcom County, Washington state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated the outbreak, which was traced to the north end of the dairy barn where the Milk Makers Fest was held.
As a result of the E. coli outbreak, organizers of the Northwest Washington Fair placed greater emphasis on hand-washing during the annual fair in August. That included doubling the number of hand-washing stations, talking to fair-goers about the importance of washing their hands and reminding people in barns to avoid eating or putting their fingers in their mouths while in animal exhibit areas.
Whatcom County Jail sparks debate, voter rejection
If it were up to Whatcom County officials, the county would be moving forward in 2016 with plans to build a new Whatcom County Jail in Ferndale.
Starting in March, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws and Sheriff Bill Elfo went to the seven Whatcom cities to sell their plan to replace the more than 30-year-old facility near the courthouse in Bellingham.
Most cities agreed to the plan, but the county and city of Bellingham failed to reach an agreement before voters, receiving mixed messages, were asked whether they wanted to fund the new plan with a sales tax increase.
The voters rejected the plan during the November general election, leaving Bellingham and the county to continue negotiating points such as alternatives to incarceration, funding for diversion programs, and new contracts to replace those set to expire at the end of 2015.
The sheriff has said he will limit the population in the current facility starting in January, and boot inmates from the cities as the jail becomes overcrowded.
The county’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, formed in mid-2015, is set to deliver its first recommendations to the County Council in early 2016.
Alcoa announces it will curtail Intalco smelter operations, laying off 465
Alcoa announced Nov. 2 that it was curtailing smelter operations at the Ferndale Intalco Works plant as part of a plan to reduce the global market supply of aluminum, which had dropped prices to six-year lows. The move will lay off 465 people in the first quarter of 2016.
The company will keep Intalco’s casthouse, which makes specialty metal products, in operation and will employ around 100 people.
Alcoa has consistently said that it views the decision on the smelter as a curtailment and that it would monitor global market conditions to determine if and when to restart operations. Since that announcement, aluminum prices have not recovered. As of Dec. 18, the price of aluminum was $1,482 for a metric ton on the London Metal Exchange. That’s below what is generally considered the break-even point of $1,500 for most U.S. smelter plants.
Hate speech at WWU
Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard canceled classes on Nov. 24 after reading hate speech directed at students of color on Yik Yak and other social media platforms.
The decision, in a year filled with increasing racial tensions on college campuses, came less than a month after the University of Missouri president resigned amid a wave of campus protests accusing him of not handling racial issues properly.
The racially charged posts on social media at Western were in response to an article in WWU’s student newspaper that discussed whether the university’s Viking mascot was appropriate.
One post on Yik Yak, in particular, said “let’s lynch her,” referring to Associated Students President Belina Seare. The comment was made on a thread that claimed Seare called white college students “baby KKK,” according to charges filed in Whatcom County Superior Court.
WWU sophomore Tysen Dane Campbell, 19, was arrested for the “let’s lynch her” post and was charged with malicious harassment, under Washington’s hate crime law. The school said it was investigating other social media posts made prior to the class cancellation but has declined to specify which posts are being investigated.
Shepard said prior to Campbell’s arrest that the lynching threat was of one of the comments that led to the class cancellation. Seare has criticized the university and campus police for not doing enough to protect her and other students of color.
Deal signed to redevelop Bellingham waterfront
A decade after the Port of Bellingham purchased the contaminated waterfront site once home to a Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill, the Port Commission signed a deal with an Irish development firm for the first work to be done there.
On March 31, the port gave the OK to sign an agreement with Dublin-based Harcourt Developments, allowing the firm to work on the first 19 acres at the northwestern corner of the site.
Redevelopment will start with the Granary Building, then a second building, and then the firm can move on to the rest of the 19 acres, purchasing them project by project at a rate of $20 per square foot.
The waterfront site also was the scene of numerous cleanup projects and demolitions in 2015, as the site was prepped to be put back to use.