Hundreds turn out to launch Bellingham anti-coal train initiative

BELLINGHAM - With a musical kickoff from bandZandt singing "No Coal Trains," local activists launched their "Coal-Free Bellingham" campaign for a citizen initiative to outlaw coal trains through a city ordinance.

Stoney Bird, a retired corporate attorney who is one of the key organizers, said it may be a week or two before signature-gatherers hit the streets. The language for the ballot title needs to be worked out with the City Attorney's office. But judging from the Thursday, Jan. 26, turnout of 200 or more enthusiastic supporters, the signature-gathering process won't lack for volunteers.

Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has been a strong backer of SSA Marine's proposal for the large Gateway Pacific coal export terminal at Cherry Point that would draw the trains through Bellingham. He lamented the latest effort to oppose that project, which already faces two or more years of local, state and federal environmental review before permits to build it could be issued.

"From our perspective, this is another attempt to try to derail the environmental review process," Oplinger said.

Initiative backers probably would not quarrel with that description. At Thursday's well-scripted event, they argued that the existing regulatory process typically results in granting a corporation the legal right to harm the environment.

"What we are launching today is an initiative campaign through which the people of Bellingham will reassert their right to govern themselves," said organizer Rick Dubrow. "Our aim is to bring a new tool to this work, one that addresses the legal framework that allows those harms to be inflicted on us."

Bird elaborated, saying that the environmental review process, which sets conditions for the granting of permits, does not do enough to safeguard communities.

"What a permit does is take something that is harmful and make it legal," Bird said. "Permits are there to allow things that cause harm to proceed."

Cindy Franklin, another speaker at Thursday's event, said Bellingham residents should challenge an existing legal system that gives them no legal tools to prevent harmful impacts on their city.

"Through this initiative, we will together protect ourselves from the noise, the disruption, the dust and the pollution of the coal trains," Franklin said. "We will do that by reasserting our right as the people of Bellingham to decide for ourselves what happens here."

Dubrow said the initiative backers will ask the City Council to pass the anti-coal ordinance before the petition drive begins.

"If you have the interests of the people of Bellingham at heart, that's what you'll do," Dubrow said.

Franklin and Dubrow also said they hoped that a similar ordinance could be enacted to cover all of Whatcom County, and that other communities along the railroad route from Wyoming and Montana mines to Cherry Point also would get in the act. Dubrow envisioned "a cluster of no-coal initiatives up and down the path of these train tracks."

The chamber's Oplinger said he doubts that local initiatives will impress federal officials who control interstate commerce under existing legal and constitutional provisions.

"How can a railroad operate?" he asked. "This is why the Interstate Commerce Commission was put in place in the first place."