Politics Blog

The Whatcom planning commission and coal

In their less happy moments, stodgy fourth estaters like me might bemoan the proliferation and atomization of news sources.

No longer are a handful of newspapers and a couple radio stations the only sources of news for a small county such as Whatcom. Considering how small Bellingham and the county are, we are replete with bloggers who keep a sharp eye out for a lot of the smaller political movements that sometimes aren't seen by newspaper or radio reporters.

Many of you who are reading this are already very familiar with the blogs I refer to: The Political Junkie, Northwest Citizen, Whatcom Excavator, Get Whatcom Planning,  Saturday Morning Live ... the list goes on and on. I just mentioned a few that I read at least occasionally.

If you're a Whatcom resident, and you want to know what's going on with government, you should be reading the many quality blogs available to you. There, I said it.

Take this case:

On Friday of last week I put two and two together and got four. On the eve of the county council's scheduled appointments of new planning commission members, it occurred to me that the commission could someday review the major development permit for the Gateway Pacific Terminal that would export coal from Cherry Point.

So much was made last election about the council's neutrality on the coal issue because its members will need to review that permit, if it ever gets that far. So what about the planning commission? Should its members be held accountable for their public positions on the coal terminal? Sure, the planning commission is not required to review the permit -- it would do so only if the council requests -- and the PC isn't making the final decision, only a recommendation. Still, on an issue with so much at stake -- whether it's the environment, the jobs, or the millions of dollars being spent just to review the project -- details like the planning commissioners' stated position on the terminal should be looked at, at least.

The resulting story, published Saturday, looked at three PC applicants who appeared most vocal on the coal issue: Delaine Clizbe, Walter Haugen and Terese VanAssche.

Turns out, at least one Whatcom blogger had already put two and two together, and that was two years ago.

Wendy Harris posted on Northwest Citizen on Jan. 15, 2012, some of sitting planning commissioner David Onkels' statements that she said were in favor of the coal terminal.

Harris wrote, "In his eagerness to attack a Democratic candidate, David Onkels forgot that members of the Whatcom County Planning Commission should not publicly comment on matters subject to future Planning Commission review. His lapse in judgment was amplified because the subject of his comment was the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal." (emphasis from the original)

You can read Harris' take on Onkels' comments on the old NW Citizen post.

I asked Onkels today, Monday, if he could be objective if the Gateway Pacific Terminal came before the planning commission for review. To summarize what you're about to read, he said Harris misconstrued his statement, and in any case he won't be around to weigh in on the terminal. He believes there will be another election (November 2015) before the terminal permit comes before the council:

"Ms. Harris is incorrect about my comment. In fact, I was ridiculing Ms. (1st Congressional District candidate Darcy) Burner's assertions about agriculture and development in Whatcom County, with which she was pretty much unacquainted. (For context, I again direct you to Harris' original post.)

"Ms. Harris stated that, 'Commissioner has not only formed a strong opinion...' I have not. I merely think that Ms. Burner's fears about "environmental degradation" are hyperbolic.

"I think that, since SSA owns the land, the property is zoned appropriately for the use, and SSA has the financial resources to develop the site in an environmentally sensitive manner, the project is worthy of support for those reasons.

"My term on the Commission ends after 2015, and it is unlikely, I fear, that I could gather four votes from the council as it is presently populated. I'll be long gone well before the next Council, not the one populated by the recent electees, has an opportunity to consider the project, which I think faces a long environmental review process.

"I was amused (and appalled as well) by the huge piles of cash that poured into the election from environmental groups, one election too early."

Now back to the 2014 Planning Commission applicants:

The story that ran in the paper and online only quoted VanAssche because Clizbe and Haugen responded to my questions after the story was finished. So here are Clizbe and Huagen's emailed responses, and a fuller account of what VanAssche had to say:


Do you think your statements on your blog that were critical of anti-coal groups should be considered by council members when they review your application? I would expect the Council Members to be aware of who I am. I expect that they could glean LIMITED information about who I am by reading my blog. However, I think they would get a much better picture of who I am by giving me a call and interviewing me for the position. There are many issues on the planning commission's plate. I do not pretend to be an expert on any of the issues. What I am is a concerned Citizen who would like to serve my community on the Planning Commission. 

Do you think that you could consider a permit application from SSA Marine objectively if it came before the planning commission? There are many issues that the Planning Commission deals with. Applications for industrial businesses at Cherry Point are but one. If I am given the opportunity to be on the planning commission I expect to listen and evaluate all the information given to me and make the decision that I deem is correct. 

Haugen (who received the same two questions via email):

As for past statements I have made against the terminal, I stand foursquare behind them. I have spent over 60 years standing behind what I say and I don't see a reason to change now. As for judging the coal terminal objectively, I have done just that and that is why I am against it. I am a scientist with a masters degree in biological anthropology. My particular emphasis in grad school was on biostatistics. The reason I have been an environmentalist for the last 45 year is precisely because I look at the objective evidence. Instead of implying that I cannot make an objective assessment, you should consider that people like Gary Jensen and Jack Louws are the ones who made subjective assessments and ignored the evidence. I have not done so.

One of the things I don't like about mainstream journalism is how assumptions are made that us environmentalists are the whackos. It is just the opposite. Those who deny climate warming are the whackos. Those who trade short-term profits for the health of their grandchildren are the whackos. Your implication is rather insulting.

VanAssche (transcription/paraphrase of phone interview):

On whether her activism against the coal terminal might factor into the council's decision to place her on the Planning Commission: "I have considered that, but I’m not going to hide who I am. I've been an activist with the Sierra Club for 25 years, so a good chunk of my adult life. … I’ve testified at the hearings in Ferndale and Seattle. I think our current council is going to make those selections (for Planning Commission), and I think they have the ability to be fair."

VanAssche mentioned that her past work as a transportation engineer qualifies her for the job. She said she worked four years on the Ferndale Parks Board, including work on the parks master plan.

She said she knew Haugen and another applicant, Bert Webber, personally. She complimented Haugen for his understanding of the economics of farming and "what we're doing to the planet -- how much does that actually cost us...."

VanAssche said that the Salish "is a critical sea," and she was glad to see environmentalist planning commission applicants get involved. Finally, she recognized the council has other pressing matters to consider, including water quality and quantity, and other growth-management issues.

Council is scheduled to select three new planning commissioners at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, at the courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.