It is hard to approach the topic of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal with Whatcom County Council candidates. After all, if they were to express an opinion it would compromise their possible future decision on the terminal. Then again, believe it or not, the proposal is not even the headline issue in all of the races.
I noticed after I finished writing Sunday's election story about the Ken Mann-Ben Elenbaas race that I didn't mention the "C" word. It turned out that way because coal is not an issue for Elenbaas, who wants to bring a farmer's perspective to the council. He often says he's the only full-time farmer on the ballot. Nor is coal at the forefront of Mann's mind. He questions whether the council will even consider the issue in the next four years. (When the time comes, the council will act like a land-use judge of sorts, deciding whether two permits for the SSA Marine export facility meet county standards. This is after an environmental impact statement is finished, in maybe two years.)
On the other hand, Michelle Luke and Carl Weimer both had interesting and somewhat revealing things to say about their positions on the coal process.
Let's take a look at what all eight candidates have said about the coal port, both in one-on-one interviews and at the Thursday, Oct. 10 candidates forum. But first, a look at the section of county code that relates to the council's impending decision.
From Whatcom County Code 20.88:
The major project permit shall be issued by the county council when the applicant has established that the proposed major development:
(1) Will comply with the development standards and performance standards of the zone in which the proposed major development will be located; provided where a proposed major development has obtained a variance from the development and performance standards, standards as varied shall be applied to that project for the purposes of this act.
(2) Where the project is conditionally permitted in the zone in which it is located, the project must satisfy the standards for the issuance of a conditional use permit for the zone in which the project is located.
(3) Will be consistent with applicable laws and regulations.
(4) Will not substantially interfere with the operation of existing uses.
(5) Will be served by, or will be provided with essential utilities, facilities and services necessary to its operation, such as roads, drainage facilities, electricity, water supply, sewage disposal facilities, and police and fire protection. Standards for such utilities, facilities and services shall be those currently accepted by the state of Washington, Whatcom County, or the appropriate agency or division thereof.
(6) Will not impose uncompensated requirements for public expenditures for additional utilities, facilities and services, and will not impose uncompensated costs on other property owned.
(7) Will be appropriately responsive to any EIS prepared for the project.
"That issue is not on the front burner as far as the mechanics of the permit process -- the candidates aren't talking about it. ... We're not there yet."
"It's on a lot of activists' minds. It's on the coal company's mind." He described an image he has of a "mutual standoff" between the two sides -- one that since the interview was conducted, on Oct. 1, is not coming to pass as he thought it would.
"I visualize it as two giant entities hovering over Whatcom County with bags of cash. I don't think either side wants to spend $100,000 or $500,000."
Since the interview, Washington Conservation Voters has spent $153,000 to support Mann, Weimer, Barry Buchanan and Rud Browne. Conservative funding hasn't come in yet on the independent expenditure ledger, but BNSF Railway and Pacific International Terminals (Gateway Pacific) donated $40,000 to the state Republican Party, and about $17,000 of that funneled down to the county party and the four conservative candidates -- Ben Elenbaas, Kathy Kershner, Bill Knutzen and Michelle Luke.
At the forum, Mann said he was endorsed by environmentalists and business types both because they trust him to make a fair, reasonable decision on the terminal.
"I'm sure that's on a lot of people's mind. I'd be running if the coal terminal was on the forefront or not. I don't want to minimize the importance of it (but) it's so far from what motivated me to run."
He said he would approach the permit decisions "open mindedly" -- a statement made by just about every candidate.
"The last thing we want is for this to be decided in a courtroom somewhere else. Bypassing that public process I don't think would be a good thing for Whatcom County." (I first heard that line from Rud Browne -- see below.)
"We really can't say what we think one way or the other. ... I don't think any of us know" what we think because the environmental impact statement is just now getting started.
"I think it's a high bar for them to meet all the mitigations they need to meet, but it's possible."
"What the voters need to focus on is to pick the candidates that have the education and experience to look at the reams of stuff we're going to see."
When asked at the forum what qualifications he brought to the coal decision, Weimer said he was the environmental community's representative for the last pier permitting decision at Cherry Point (a pier that was approved but never built).
"I believe in climate change," Weimer also said. "Some people don't." (His opponent, Michelle Luke, says she does.)
When asked if she thought coal was the big issue of the campaign, Luke said,
"I'm not finding that when I talk to people. ... There seem to be specific groups that have it as a burning issue, but regular people, that's not what they're talking about. They want to talk about more tangible (things)." She also said, as I mentioned in my story, that she supports the broad scope for the environmental impact statement that was called for by the Department of Ecology.
When asked about the decision-making process on council, Luke said,
"Just because it's bigger doesn't mean it can't be broken down, simplified and clarified. And the council will make the best decision."
Is this election about the coal terminal?
"I haven't heard any candidate on either side express any position on Gateway Pacific. ... To me it's unfortunate that the election is going to come down to one issue, but I believe you're right. It will come down to how many people vote and how many people are passionate about which side of that issue. It's unfortunate because all the good work and all the good qualities of candidates will be swept aside based on people's perceptions of how they will vote on that issue."
In the forum, Kershner said the council must consider the "seven benchmarks" for permit approval outlined in the county code -- nothing more or less. In answer to another forum question, she said she was qualified to make the decision "because I can read and I can listen. I will read all of the record, and I will listen to all of the people."
In addition to the benchmarks referred to by Kershner, Buchanan said the council must look at the broad scope established by the state and the county for the environmental impact statement: economic liability, the global effects of fossil fuel burning, etc.
In an interview, he said, "I'll be looking at those things that were identified in the scoping that we can consider, from the large to the small."
Buchanan said he was qualified to make the decision because he had a background in manufacturing technology.
Knutzen spoke of remaining impartial in order to remain eligible to vote on the terminal permits.
"If it goes through the EIS (environmental impact statement), the SEPA (state environmental policy act), it deserves its day in court," Knutzen said at the forum.
He was clear on his opinion of a Whatcom Democrat resolution calling for no more development on Cherry Point -- a symbolic move by a party organization, which, if actually enforced, would immediately rule out the Gateway Pacific Terminal.
"We have a lot of vital industries out at Cherry Point," Knutzen said, including two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter.
"If we lose those jobs, I don't know what this community will look like."
The Democrats' resolution doesn't call for eliminating existing development. Knutzen was speaking of these industries' inability to expand when -- not if -- they need to.
The discussion was an opportunity for him to say one of his favorite catch-phrases on the campaign:
"You're either green and growing or red and rotting."
"I honestly don't know" what I think about the coal port, Browne said in an interview. Like Kershner, he cited the seven criteria in county code.
"I have to follow the law," Browne said. "If I don't follow the law, it ends up in a courtroom in Seattle, and it's no longer a local decision."
In talking with residents, Browne said he thought the community was fairly evenly split on the issue.
If it's not 50-50, it's not 80-20 either, he said.
"Half the population is going to be unhappy with the result," he said.
On the other hand, the impact of train traffic on the community is more of an 80-20 issue, with a large majority of people opposed to disruptive trains. Rail traffic "has already proven to be disruptive," he said.