Whatcom County hot topics for 2015

Whatcom County has quite a few issues that will be hot topics in 2015. Here’s a look at just a few:

• The number of trains rolling through Whatcom County, and what they carry, will continue to be of great concern. BNSF anticipates growth in train traffic through Whatcom County whether or not Gateway Pacific Terminal is built. Coal trains alone should increase in number after completion of an upgrade at Westshore Terminals in Delta, B.C.

A series of oil-train accidents spurred the rail industry and national regulators to look at everything from train speeds to track inspections to tank car construction in the past year. They have yet to act.

Most agree tank cars with thicker walls would help, but there aren’t enough to meet the growing need to ship the volatile oil from North Dakota’s Bakken area.

Last spring, the U.S. Department of Transportation mandated that railroads tell first responders about the number of trains carrying at least 1 million gallons of crude oil through each county. The first week of June, Whatcom, home to two major Pacific Coast refineries, had five of the state’s 19 crude oil trains roll through it. The next week Whatcom had six of the state’s 13.

Washington State took a look at the risks of hauling crude oil by rail and pipeline and the report offers 43 recommendations for the Legislature. There is no price tag, but recommendations include changes to the regulatory fee structure for railroads so that the state Utilities and Transportation Commission can raise about $2.5 million to add inspectors.

A top finding in the report is a lack of preparation for major incidents by local first responders. Whatcom agencies have evacuation and mass communication plans in place, but to fight a fire on a large spill would test any agency, retired fire chief Roger Christensen told Bellingham Herald reporter Samantha Wohlfeil in September.

• We hope the Port of Bellingham is successful in negotiations with Irish development group and gets redevelopment moving at the former Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue site on the waterfront.

When production stopped in 2007, the port and city had lofty redevelopment goals. Those plans were crushed by the Great Recession.

Toxic cleanup continues and some buildings have been razed, but the site sits mostly empty, our greatest fear when Georgia Pacifc considered shuttering the plant.. Not only is the site a scar on the waterfront, firefighters found evidence of squatters at the abandoned alcohol plant that burned Dec. 13 on the site.

The city and port won’t make everybody happy no matter what’s built on the site. But any activity on the site is welcome. It’s time.

• Whatcom County Charter Review Commissioners elected in 2014 will hold regularly scheduled meetings until they make their recommendations to the Whatcom County Council Office in July 2015.

Every 10 years 15 commissioners review the county charter and may put amendments on the next ballot for voters to decide.

The charter sets the rules for how county government runs. It outlines the separation of powers between the County Council and the executive. It requires that the county be divided into three districts of roughly equal population for council districts and other county-wide voting.

A return to “district-only voting,” in which County Council members are not elected countywide but rather by the voters in their district, was discussed by some candidates. The commission recommended district-only voting to county voters in 2005, and the voters approved it. The County Council sought to rescind district-only voting and brought it back to the voters in 2008, when voters decided to return to countywide voting for council members.

Also in play may be a desire to move decision-making power from the County Council to the executive on land-use decisions, including the proposed coal terminal.

• Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis was appointed Dec. 15, 2014 by Gov. Jay Inslee as the long-awaited fourth Whatcom Superior Court judge. After 2014’s national spotlight on racial inequality in the justice system, her expertise and diversity is welcome.

Overloaded courts have been an issue here for years. A fourth judge should greatly help.

We also welcome plans for a mental health court, which will no doubt increase public safety and reduce the use of the criminal justice system.

Montoya-Lewis, the first Native American on the Whatcom bench, said: “I think I will bring a unique perspective in serving that part of the community, but I see my role as serving the entire county. I see my role as being fair and neutral and unbiased.”

We wish her a successful tenure.

• Whatcom County plans much-needed technical upgrades for land records and public safety. While county staff and law enforcement will benefit, those benefits pass down as well to the community in speed and transparency of service.

It’s a significant investment and we hope the new technology will also reduce operating costs in the future.

• By the government’s definition, we’ve been out of the recession since 2010. Whatcom County, always heavy on retail and service jobs, has yet to return to pre-recession levels in jobs.

While many argue about the number of jobs new Cherry Point development would bring, there’s no doubt the industrial jobs there already provide many of the desired living-wage jobs in our community.

Green energy, technology, Made in the USA small manufacturing would all be welcome. We hope the NW Innovation Resource Center is successful in growing entrepreneurial innovation here. And we salute the efforts at Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College in crafting programs that fill the needs in our community, such as nursing and welding.

Experts at the 25th annual U.S. Bank Economic Forum this year were upbeat about job growth regionally. We hope some of those new jobs land in Whatcom County.

• While Whatcom County continues to support its local schools with levies, the state’s educational system has fallen behind the rest of the world.

Funding must be found for education, from pre-kindergarten, to ensure our children can meet the challenges of the future.

Gov. Inslee has proposed the state meet its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education with changes to Washington’s system of taxation. His tax on carbon emissions paid by polluters and capital gains paid by less than 2 percent of people are controversial. But the legislators must decide, quickly.

• Whatcom County farmers have established watershed improvement districts to raise funds to fight for water rights for farmers, many of whom are irrigating with inadequate water rights, or no water rights at all. Exactly how much water there is, and who it belongs to, will be the subject of a federal study coming after courts approved a request from local tribes to quantify how much water must remain in streams for the benefit of salmon.

In addition to farmers, tribes and environmentalists, we all have an interest in water ownership. The Public Utility District has a water right for industrial customers that keep many employed. The cities have water rights for urban uses, including drinking water. Lake Whatcom, which provides drinking water for many, is fed by the Nooksack River.

• Will we see movement, other than protest, on Gateway Pacific Terminal? Will marijuana sales create public safety issues? Will state health care save lives and money? We’ll be watching.

Welcome to 2015.