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Whatcom Planning Commission to consider Cherry Point perspective in January

In this photo taken Oct. 23, 2012, a ship is seen in the distance moored at the BP oil refinery in the Strait of Georgia just beyond the location of a proposed coal exporting terminal in Ferndale.
In this photo taken Oct. 23, 2012, a ship is seen in the distance moored at the BP oil refinery in the Strait of Georgia just beyond the location of a proposed coal exporting terminal in Ferndale. AP

Since October, the Whatcom County Planning Commission has focused on refining policies for development at Cherry Point.

The commission, at the direction of the Whatcom County Council, has been working on changes to the portion of the county planning document that guides land use at Cherry Point, the county’s industrial heartland.

After two work sessions and two long meetings at which hundreds of people gave input on the amendments, the commission opted at the end of its Dec. 8 meeting to continue its work, with another session Jan. 12.

The majority of those who spoke at the town hall and later public hearing were opposed to changing the comprehensive plan in any way that might limit growth or existing industries at Cherry Point.

In part, the concerns derive from a limit the County Council put in place in August and then extended in September, to prevent any new applications to ship unrefined fossil fuels through Cherry Point until at least spring.

The definition of unrefined fuels used in the ordinance included substances such as methane, propane and butane, which may be byproducts of the crude-oil refining process. The temporary hold on applications doesn’t apply to projects that use byproducts from the existing BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 Ferndale refineries, but that provides little solace for the refinery workers and contractors who worry their jobs could be in jeopardy if those types of policies are codified.

Not rules, just policies

After dozens of people spoke out against the changes proposed by County Council member Carl Weimer during the Dec. 8 commission meeting, Commissioner Natalie McClendon tried to clarify that nothing in the proposed changes would ban the export of fossil fuels.

“To your knowledge, do we have the legal right to ban exports?” McClendon asked the commission’s legal counsel, Royce Buckingham.

“No,” Buckingham replied.

“OK, thank you,” McClendon said. “I asked that because many have been testifying that what we’re trying to do is ban exports, and that’s not what’s in this document that I’m aware of.”

Among other things, the policies in the draft of the Planning Commission’s recommendation include encouraging clean energy in future development; continuing the limit on the number of industrial piers (three existing, one proposed); encouraging the federal government to enforce a policy that restricts crude oil handling in Puget Sound called the Magnuson Amendment; and direction to study legal ways the county can limit crude oil, coal and natural gas exports.

A staff member clarified that the document contains policies, not regulations. The tools to regulate activity are guided by those policies in the future.

A closer look

The commissioners agreed to continue working on their recommendation in January, and will take a closer look at a proposal put forward by the Whatcom Business Alliance on behalf of a coalition of Cherry Point businesses.

“The coalition represents a diverse group of Whatcom County stakeholders who have different perspectives and concerns about the County Council’s proposed Comprehensive Plan update,” WBA President Tony Larson said in an email. “Our main concern is that the Council’s proposal fails to support sustainable communities by failing to promote a balance between both environmental stewardship and economic opportunity and job creation.”

The WBA is pleased the commission “agreed to take a serious look at our Collaborative Alternative #3,” which draws from previous language in a similar format to the other options before the commission.

Crina Hoyer, executive director at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said in an email that the Planning Commission had done a good job reviewing the plan amendments proposed by Weimer.

“RE Sources supports strong Comprehensive Plan policies setting clear expectations that Whatcom County will follow state and federal law to reject new permit applications for projects to move coal, crude oil, or natural gas bound for export through the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve,” Hoyer said in the email. “We are committed to protecting Cherry Point from companies who want to export coal, crude oil, or natural gas overseas, which leaves the communities of the Salish Sea exposed to increased risk from spills, leaks, explosions, pollution and traffic.”

Public comments sent to the commission, the alternatives being examined, and other related documents can be found online at whatcomcounty.us/552/Planning-Commission.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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