Local Election

Coal, environmentalists spend $100K each on Whatcom charter measures

A coal train waits south of Blaine, Friday morning, Oct. 11, 2013, to cross the border and unload in Canada.
A coal train waits south of Blaine, Friday morning, Oct. 11, 2013, to cross the border and unload in Canada. The Bellingham Herald

The company behind a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point is the biggest donor in a campaign fight over obscure ballot propositions in Whatcom County.

The $101,089 spent by Pacific International Terminals was matched by environmentalists, who contributed at least $102,738, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. Both sides seek to amend the county charter in ways that would determine the political makeup of the County Council.

The charter is essentially the county’s constitution, with rules for how the government is run and how officials are elected.

The final pre-election deadline for reporting contributions to the PDC was Tuesday, Oct. 27. More donations may have come in after this article’s deadline.

The two largest environmental contributors to this year’s charter campaign were RE Sources for Sustainable Communities with $52,738, and the Sierra Club. The San Francisco-based Sierra Club on Wednesday, Oct. 21, gave a new ballot committee called Fair & Equal Whatcom $33,000, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. The committee received another $10,000 from Washington Conservation Voters, and at least $7,000 from Seattle environmentalists.

Pacific International Terminals, a subsidiary of SSA Marine, split its contributions between its own political committee and the county Republican Party.

SSA Marine would build Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point that would ship up to 48 million metric tons of coal a year to Asia. The project is under environmental review and could be operating by 2020.

The coal terminal gave $58,545 to its own committee, Clear Ballot Choices, according to Public Disclosure Commission records. It also gave $42,545 to the county Republican Party.

Only 2015 donations are counted.

SSA Marine’s money will go largely to support county charter amendment Proposition 1 on the Nov. 3 ballot. If the measure is approved, County Council members would no longer be elected countywide but only by voters living in their district.

Conservatives have pushed this proposition over the past year, saying it would bring more rural representation to a council now dominated by progressives.

Environmentalists have organized against Proposition 1 and in support of their alternative, Proposition 9, which would create five county districts instead of the existing three.

Groups such as RE Sources say five districts would be better because they would consolidate Bellingham into two districts, leaving three districts for rural voters. Under the current system, Bellingham is carved up as part of all three districts, diluting the liberal vote if council elections are district-only.

RE Sources wasn’t surprised by the large sum donated by the coal terminal, according to Matt Petryni, the group’s clean energy program manager. The county council could be asked to approve a major permit for the terminal.

“They’re trying to change the rules we’ve used for decades to secure a pro-coal majority,” Petryni said. “Clearly they have an interest in that. They don’t spend this kind of money unless they get something out of it.”

When asked why SSA Marine was spending so much on this election, Senior Vice President Bob Watters emphasized the company’s role as a property owner and taxpayer in the county.

“We have an obvious interest in waterfront-related economic development,” Watters said in a prepared statement. “It would be a shame to allow big campaign dollars from organizations in California and Seattle, which have no real connection to the area, to curtail local economic development and high-wage job creation as they are attempting to do.”

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.