Coal controversy, shootings, election among top 2011 stories in Whatcom County

A coal train heads north through the site of the former Georgia-Pacific mill on the Bellingham waterfront. More trains could be coming if SSA Marine's plan to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal and bulk cargo export terminal at Cherry Point is realized.
A coal train heads north through the site of the former Georgia-Pacific mill on the Bellingham waterfront. More trains could be coming if SSA Marine's plan to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal and bulk cargo export terminal at Cherry Point is realized. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

2011 was a year of resolutions in Whatcom County. The Chuckanut Ridge property, which some residents had spent years fighting to protect from development, was finally bought by the city of Bellingham for park land. After more than a year of negotations, Whatcom County and Lummi Nation agreed on a ferry dock land lease, much to the relief of Lummi Island residents.

But for those controversies that were resolved, new ones arose: red-light cameras, plastic bags,

Nnone seemed to generate as much debate or emotion as the proposed coal and bulk cargo terminal for Cherry Point.

Here are the top 10 local news stories of 2011, in no particular order, as chosen by The Bellingham Herald news reporters.


For decades, owners of an industrial waterfront property just south of the BP Cherry Point refinery had plans for a relatively small-scale shipping terminal that would handle bulk cargoes of potash, grain, and similar cargoes.

In 2010, interest heated up after owner SSA Marine of Seattle announced plans for a facility capable of handling larger volumes of cargo than previously discussed. Before the year was out, it became clear that most or all of that cargo likely would be China-bound coal, and that touched off a controversy across Whatcom County.

Union leaders and some small-city mayors were quick to endorse SSA's Gateway Pacific Terminal as a source of much-needed jobs and tax revenue. But environmentalists were equally quick to denounce the idea as a contributor to global warming as well as local ills such as pollution from trains and ships and disruption of traffic at railroad crossings.

The formal process of evaluating Gateway Pacific's potential environmental impacts has barely begun and is expected to take two more years at a minimum.


The Bellingham City Council ended years of controversy on Aug. 15 by approving the $8.2 million purchase of the 82-acre Chuckanut Ridge property on the south side.

The purchase, recommended by Mayor Dan Pike, won applause from south side residents who had long opposed the dense residential development planned for the wooded site. But some people questioned the price tag, as well as the city's apparent haste in closing the deal with Washington Federal Savings.

Critics contended that the city bypassed usual policy for acquiring new parks land. Others expressed concern about borrowing $3.4 million of the price from a parks fund supposedly reserved for maintenance - a sum that will have to be paid back.

But Pike and most council members defended the deal, saying that as a last resort, a portion of the property could be sold to repay the endowment fund.

— John Stark


Shooting injuries and deaths made headlines throughout the year.

Jesse Winchester, 22, was shot and killed at a Lynden home in November in what police called a drug deal gone bad. Police still were searching for the brothers they believe responsible, Oscar and Salvador Rodriguez.

In July, Kriston Peterman-Dunya was found dead in her Bellingham apartment from a shotgun wound. Her estranged husband, Keayn Dunya, and his girlfriend, Kara Buchanan, were both charged with first-degree murder and are awating trial.

In February, Alejandro Perez Martinez was shot and killed by law enforcement northeast of Lynden after he struck a Whatcom County Sheriff's deputy with an object.

Three people also were injured during a shooting on the last night of the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden.

- Zoe Fraley


On Sept. 13, after hearing anguished pleas from Lummi Island residents, the Whatcom County Council voted 5-2 to approve a new lease agreement with Lummi Nation to keep island ferry service in place for another 35 years.

The county and Lummi Nation had been in and out of negotiations over lease terms even before the previous long-term lease expired in February 2010. At times, it seemed as though breakdowns in the talks might lead to a sudden suspension of ferry service that would make life difficult or impossible for the island's roughly 900 permanent residents.

The cost was steep: $200,000 a year to be paid to the tribe, plus another $6 million in improvements to streets and sidewalks on the approaches to the Gooseberry Point dock on the Lummi Reservation.

Ferry fares have been set to recover 55 percent of all ferry operating costs, including the lease payments, and island residents faced hefty fare increases in 2011 to cover the anticipated lease payment. The rest of the cost comes from county tax revenues.

— John Stark


In 2011, Bellingham, like other communities around Washington, debated red-light and school-zone speed cameras, after city leaders in late 2010 approved them.

A group calling itself Transportation Safety Coalition gathered enough signatures to put a citywide initiative on the ballot. The initiative required removal of any cameras and voter approval of any plan to re-install them. It also limited fine amounts.

American Traffic Solutions, the camera company Mayor Dan Pike signed a contract with, sued and won invalidation of the measure, although it remained on the Nov. 8 ballot and passed overwhelmingly, with 68 percent in favor. Camera opponents appealed the court ruling, and the Supreme Court is scheduled to accept or reject the appeal in late March.

Meanwhile, city leaders expect the cameras to be installed in the first half of 2012.

- Jared Paben


In fall 2011, Whatcom County voters elected a man with an old family name as county executive, the first new executive since 1995. Bellingham voters elected the city's first female mayor, giving her a narrow victory over a one-term incumbent.

In races, jobs and the environment took center stage. Candidates frequently found themselves answering questions about the proposed coal-exporting terminal at Cherry Point.

In the Nov. 8 general election, Jack Louws, former mayor of Lynden, was elected executive, county government's top administrator. His father, John Louws, became the county's first executive when he won the seat in 1979. Jack Louws beat another conservative, Republican state Sen. Doug Ericksen, with 54 percent of the vote.

Former Democratic state Rep. Kelli Linville will become Bellingham's first female mayor, beating incumbent Mayor Dan Pike by just 151 votes.

- Jared Paben


On July 11, the Bellingham City Council approved an ordinance that will ban most plastic shopping bags within the city once it takes effect in July 2012.

A citizens' group called Bag It Bellingham, formed by Brooks Anderson and Jill MacIntyre Witt, drafted the ordinance and mounted a public education campaign and petition drive. They got an early endorsement from council member Seth Fleetwood. Once several local retailers endorsed the measure, its passage became a foregone conclusion, and the council's vote was unanimous.

There was some grumbling about excessive government regulation, but no organized opposition.

The ordinance bans plastic shopping bags at nearly all stores, and requires the stores to charge customers five cents apiece for paper bags, with the money staying with the stores. The idea is to encourage the use of reusable bags, eliminating plastic waste.

— John Stark


Whatcom County's manufacturing industry was one of the few sectors to grow its workforce in 2011, and Alcoa Intalco Works was part of that trend.

With some assurance of stable power prices, the Ferndale aluminum smelter restarted some of its idled smelting pots in February, hiring about 60 new workers and retaining another 65 temporary employees. The restart added about 40,000 metric tons per year to its production capacity.

In mid-October, workers at Alcoa Intalco Works voted to strike but remained on the job as long as progress was being made in negotiations. After two weeks, the union members voted to accept a revised contract offered by the company.

— Dave Gallagher


After a record year in 2010, air travel at Bellingham International Airport kept on gaining altitude.

As airlines added service and travelers from lower British Columbia to north King County became increasingly aware of Bellingham as an alternative to Sea-Tac and Vancouver International Airport headaches, passenger traffic was expected to come close to half a million outbound passengers.

That is about 100,000 more than in 2010.

In January 2011, Alaska Airlines started direct service to Honolulu. Over the summer, a $7.5 million departure terminal opened. Construction work on further terminal expansions is expected to be under way during much or all of 2012, with completion slated for early 2013.

But the airport's year ended on a sad note, with Port of Bellingham Aviation Director Art Choat retiring to fight lung cancer.

— John Stark


It's one of the largest private investments made in Whatcom County, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the construction industry.

Last spring BP Cherry Point began work to install ultra-low-sulfur units, a project that costs around $400 million and will keep hundreds of local construction workers busy through the end of 2012. The units are being put in place so BP can meet stricter air quality regulations.

The project hit a snag Dec. 9 when a 475-ton cylinder headed for the refinery fell off a barge about 500 feet offshore from Gulf Road.

It wasn't pulled from the water until Dec. 21, when two cranes on a barge lifted it out. By Dec. 23, it was at the refinery, where it was being inspected before installation. Officials say the accident won't delay the overall project.

- Dave Gallagher


These Bellingham Herald stories were the most-read at bellinghamherald.com in 2011. Click on the headline to read each item.

1. Gunfire at Lynden fair injures multiple people

2. 15-year-old arrested in Lynden fair shootings, stabbing

3. Bellingham man severs arm with homemade guillotine

4. Ferndale man dead, father wounded in shooting near Lynden High School

5. Lynden man causes explosion after igniting gasoline-soaked beehive

6. Alleged heroin, meth ring leader arrested in Bellingham

7. Lynden police looking for two suspects in fatal shooting

8. Driver killed in rollover accident in Bellingham's Irongate area

9. Bellingham police: Man tackled by victim after harassing lesbian couple

10. Bellingham teen found guilty of vehicular homicide in toddler’s death


These Bellingham Herald photo galleries were the most-viewed at bellinghamherald.com in 2011.

1. Photos of the Week

2. 2011 Ski to Sea Grand Parade

3. Occupy Bellingham evicted

4. 2011 Bellingham Bay Marathon

5. Rebuilding Whatcom Middle School

6. Railroad protest in Bellingham

7. 2011 Lake Padden Triathlon

8. 2011 Ski to Sea Downhill Leg

9. 2011 Ski to Sea Kayak Leg

10. 2011 Ski to Sea Canoe Leg