Bellingham council drops plan for vote on coal trains

BELLINGHAM - The City Council has dropped a proposal for a November advisory vote on the Gateway Pacific Terminal project.

On Monday, Aug. 6, after a brief committee discussion of a proposed resolution to give city voters a chance to express themselves in a non-binding vote, council members agreed to drop the idea.

Council member Jack Weiss, one of the original proponents of the advisory vote, said it would be better if Bellingham residents focused their energies on studying the many issues surrounding the project, to prepare themselves for participation in the upcoming "scoping process" expected to begin this fall.

Council President Terry Bornemann agreed.

"We need to put our energies on the things we can work on right now," Bornemann said.

The scoping process is the first step in evaluating Gateway Pacific's environmental and economic impacts. That process is designed to give the public a chance to weigh in on what specific issues should be studied as regulatory agencies decide whether to grant permits for the construction of the massive coal-shipping pier at Cherry Point, south of the BP refinery.

People opposed to SSA Marine's proposed coal terminal want the environmental study to include a wide range of potential effects, among them global climate change impacts from burning the coal in China, and health and traffic impacts of coal-train traffic through Bellingham and other cities along the route to coal mines.

During their July 23 meeting, council members voted 5-2 to direct city staffers to draw up a ballot measure for a non-binding advisory vote for further review. At that time, some council members said they favored such a vote as an alternative to the No Coal! initiative and Community Bill of Rights, which created a new city ordinance outlawing the transport of coal through the city.

After No Coal! initiative backers obtained the legally required minimum number of petition signatures to qualify their measure for the November ballot, the council voted to seek a court order blocking the initiative. Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder granted that order Aug. 3, ruling that city government had no legal authority to regulate rail traffic through the city, and that the proposed initiative would be misleading to voters.

But the council's legal move against the initiative stirred some public resentment, and that led some council members to consider the non-binding vote as a way of giving citizens a chance to express themselves.

During Monday's discussion, council members indicated they were open to holding a non-binding advisory vote on Gateway Pacific at a later date, after the scoping process is complete.

The scoping process is the first stage in what is expected to be the multi-year process of preparing the full environmental impact statement and getting public input on that document.

While not taking a formal stand against Gateway Pacific, the council earlier agreed unanimously to send a letter to regulatory agencies urging that they take a broad view in deciding what issues deserve study as part of the permitting process.

"I think citizens should be well aware that we're really looking out for their best interests," council member Gene Knutson said.