All four men running for Whatcom County executive say they support having a cargo terminal at Cherry Point, a heavy-industrial zone with deepwater access.
But throw coal into the mix and differences emerge.
The executive, the county's top administrative post, oversees the staff that will guide environmental review and permitting for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project. County law says the County Council decides on approval.
Still, some people expect a permitting slugfest, with major decisions thrust into the hands of courts by well-funded and diametrically opposed parties.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The following men are running for county executive: Tom Anderson, former general manager of the Whatcom County Public Utility District and a business owner; Doug Ericksen, Republican senator for the 42nd Legislative District; Jack Louws, former president of Louws Truss and former mayor of Lynden; and David Stalheim, former county planning director and current manager of Bellingham's block grant program.
The top two vote getters in the Aug. 16 primary will face off in the November general election.
Executive Pete Kremen has decided not to run for re-election to the position; instead, he's running against County Council member Tony Larson for Larson's seat on the council.
SSA Marine of Seattle is proposing to build the cargo facility at Cherry Point. The company has a 1997 permit for a facility on 180 acres capable of handling up to 8.2 million tons of cargo per year, not including coal.
Now it has applied to Whatcom County for a facility on 350 acres capable of handling up to 54 million tons of cargo per year, including coal.
County officials have already ruled that the expanded project needs a new permit and full environmental scrutiny.
An environmental impact statement will show how the project would affect the area, including the environment, traffic and public services.
Environmental-protection groups fear impacts from the facility and the coal traveling on trains through various communities. Unions and conservatives alike emphasize the good-paying jobs it would bring to the county.
Following are the candidates' positions on the terminal (in the order in which they filed to run):
As a businessman, Louws said he never got too excited or down on a proposal until he had the opportunity to study it. Whatcom County needs good jobs, he said, but it's also important to have a fair review process that follows county law and includes participation of all parties.
"At the end of the day, we'll find out whether the benefit to Whatcom County as it relates to jobs is there, and we'll make a decision," he said. "Whatcom County needs to spend the time to ensure that this meets our land-use rules and regulations."
When asked what role politics plays in it, he said that politics shouldn't play a role. The role of the executive is to take a professional, neutral approach so the process is fair. If he comes out either for or against it, then groups that disagree may feel their access to the process will be inhibited, he said. When asked how the voters, then, could trust that he wouldn't inject bias into the process, he said it basically comes down to trust and his background.
Louws believes it's probably overextending for the environmental impact statement to look at the national or global environmental impacts of China burning the coal exported from here. He also said that the U.S. doesn't particularly like coal as a fuel source, but we're willing to sell it to China to burn to support industries competing against us for jobs. But that's not an issue that's going to get solved at the Whatcom County level, he said.
Ericksen said the terminal would be good in terms of job creation for Whatcom County.
"They need somebody in the county executive's office who is committed to job creation and will work with them to get the job done," he said.
He supports building a pier there, and he would work with the applicants to hold them accountable to their environmental commitments to the community. As examples, he said company representatives have stated they'll have covered coal conveyors and transfer stations.
"I support it as proposed, if they live up to the commitments they're making and their proposal includes all these protections," he said.
It wouldn't be his job, as executive, to dictate SSA Marine's business plan by telling them whether they can export coal, as opposed to other products, he said. They need a business plan that works, he said.
The environmental review must be fair, with opportunities for comment. And the proper mitigation also must be in place. The bulk of the decision about that property was made when it was zoned heavy industrial, he said.
Some candidates are debating whether a coal-exporting terminal should be there. To him, "it's not a debate about whether or not you have the facility there."
When asked how people can differentiate the candidates on this topic, he said he's clear that he'd work with the applicants. He's not saying anybody is being misleading, but his opponents are all saying they support industrial development there, he said.
Access to ocean shipping will be important in the future, Anderson said, because as the price of energy rises, ocean shipping still will be the least expensive way to move goods.
That being said, "I'm not really excited about the current proposal, per se," he said.
"But it is private property, and the government doesn't get to dictate what happens out there."
He doesn't like the idea of exporting coal. The U.S. should be weaning itself off coal and developing infrastructure for alternative energies. But if that infrastructure isn't built, U.S. coal reserves are going to be increasingly valuable. Selling to other countries for cheap now doesn't make sense, he said.
"Aren't you committing job suicide for the future, because without energy, you don't have jobs," he said. "I think it's sort of bad policy."
He'd approach permitting with high environmental standards, because those are the community's standards. All players need to be treated with respect, and the rules must be followed, he said.
His biggest concern is that outside groups are pouring money in and raising emotions.
"We need a good public dialogue locally to try to get the community on the same page," he said.
Ultimately, the county's ability to attract outside investments - whether it's "green," "black" or otherwise - is dependent on how we treat them, he said.
"Without investment, we're going to have one heck of a time trying to come up with jobs," he said.
The additional pier has already gone through environmental review and has been largely signed off by the major parties, he said. But things changed when the company altered its proposal and added coal.
"Coal isn't necessarily a long-term economic future that we need for the world or for this community," he said. In five years, when importers find cheaper coal somewhere else, the county could lose those jobs. His first interest is trying to find a way to get a facility that ships other commodities. That's a long-term goal, he said.
The environmental review also will have to look at the impacts of trains carrying coal, as well as the impacts of having the material stored on the shoreline. SSA Marine will have to hit the highest standards, he said.
"If they can't meet protection of the environment, then I'm going to come out opposed to the project," he said.
He doubts the environmental review could look at global issues with respect to the nation's reliance on coal, but coal is still up for discussion because of its more immediate impacts.
When asked about injecting politics into permitting, he said politics always plays a role in permitting and land-use decisions, and they'll play into it, because it's a community decision.
Still, while the Sierra Club and Washington Conservation Voters have endorsed him, Stalheim won't take a position until the proposal goes through the process, he said. He has to ensure the process is fair, open, transparent and objective, and if he came out for or against the project now, he'd jeopardize that, he said.
MORE ON PROJECT
To see the project applications, go to this web page on Whatcom County's website."
For more on the county executive candidates, including their answers to questions on key issues in the race, go to bellinghamherald.com/elections. There you'll also find links to candidates' websites, articles on other races in the primary and other election information.