Whatcom commissioner denies accusations of conflict of interest over proposed coal terminal

A Whatcom County Planning Commission member says he intends to vote on a plan related to a proposed coal-exporting terminal, even though his employer does business with the terminal backer.

The commission, which advises the County Council, is considering the Birch Bay Watershed Action Plan, which is meant to encourage environmentally friendly development. Some groups say it could help SSA Marine build the terminal at Cherry Point, while county planners dispute that and have proposed plan changes aimed at allaying those concerns.

Point Roberts resident and longtime commission member John Lesow works for Cascade Canada -Material Handling Products, which is owned by Cascade Corp., which does business with SSA.

"It disturbed me greatly to learn of a gentleman on the planning (commission) that has ties to SSA and to a coal-mining facility in Saskatchewan, Canada," resident Anita Darling wrote to the commission. "Really? Does no one else find this as a little one sided (to SSA) or having a conflict of interest with special interest once again to BIG BUSINESS."

Lesow, who declared his employer's dealings at a Dec. 8 commission meeting, said he can consider the plan in a nonbiased manner and won't recuse himself. SSA isn't one of his clients, he said, and Cascade does substantially more business with other large customers.

He is responsible for marketing pulp and paper handling equipment to mills and stevedoring operations in Western Canada, he said. He's working on a project for Saskatchewan Power, which mines coal from the same deposit where coal headed to the SSA Marine facility would be extracted, he said.

"To that extent, I do have an occupational interest in the extraction, processing and burning of coal," he wrote in an email to a resident. He is concerned, however, about the effects of coal dust and airborne pollution from any source, he wrote. Point Roberts is just south of a large coal-exporting terminal in British Columbia.

"I appreciate the concerns regarding coal dust, as do the 1,300 Point Roberts residents, who live much closer to the problem than the other 190,000 citizens of Whatcom County," he wrote in the email.

On The Bellingham Herald's Politics blog, some locals involved in planning and development defended Lesow.

"He has accused me in the past of basing my ideas on financial return rather than what I believed," wrote Jack Petree, who has worked as a development consultant, "but, that being said, I don't think there is anyone I would trust more to vote his opinion rather than vote on the basis of any supposed benefit to his employer."

Lesow's current term is scheduled to end Jan. 31, 2013.

"I'm pretty adamant in my opinions, and as far as my qualifications to serve on the Planning Commission, I'm not going to change," Lesow said in an interview.

On Jan. 10 the County Council will consider commission appointments and could ask him to recuse himself, Lesow said. Commissioners serve at the will of the council. He said he doesn't have any indication council members want to do that.

The commission will meet Jan. 26 to consider the watershed action plan.