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The Gristle

Letters to the North Pole

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

LETTERS TO THE NORTH POLE: Bellingham City Council last week added a few flourishes to an eight-page letter Mayor Kelli Linville intends to submit to the scoping process for the environmental impact statement (EIS) being prepared for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. City Council continues to ease back, persuaded by arguments of logic and restraint in its response to the proposal; meanwhile, elected officials in King County and elsewhere turned have turned out en masse in opposition to the coal port.

As journalist Floyd McKay detailed for Crosscut, “Several hundred speakers and audiences totaling over 8,000 people railed about railroads, jabbered about jobs, castigated coal, fretted about fish and calculated climate-change effects on future generations of Washingtonians.” The last and largest of these meetings in Seattle last week drew more than 2,000 people, with that city’s mayor and King County’s executive both speaking out strongly against coal.

“Up to 18 trains a day, each a mile-and-a-half long, will cause unscheduled delays at street-level crossings and slow the movement of goods and workers. It will use up finite rail capacity that our industries like aerospace rely on to move parts and finished products,’ Executive Dow Constantine warned. “Let’s send a message to the nation and the world that we need to end our reliance on finite, polluting energy sources.”

His thoughts were echoed by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who called for a comprehensive study of the economic impacts of coast-hugging coal trains in waterfront districts. His call followed a city-commissioned study that concluded coal trains could delay downtown traffic by one to three hours a day.

Scoping sessions are not popularity contests, but opponents of GPT learned an important lesson in Ferndale last month after the project applicant, SSA Marine, paid day workers to stand in line in green t-shirts for a speaking slot, foreclosing on the broader public’s opportunity to broadly share what they believe should be contained within the scope of the EIS. In that the scoping and bargaining process for mitigation is of benefit to everyone, whether or not they support the project, the collusion of corporate and union interests in Ferndale was shameful—essentially a paid effort to run out the clock by shouting “Jobs Here! Jobs Now!” and endlessly parroting talking points not in dispute.

Wiser from the experience in Ferndale, opponents in Seattle donned bright red t-shirts so that, even if their voices were denied through machination, their numbers could be understood by a visual scan of the audience, where they outnumbered supporters by scores.
The political evolution of the coal debate is a marvel to behold, with elected officials within a space of 24 months pressured along a spectrum from active to passive support, to a studious neutrality, onward to active, universal opposition to West Coast coal ports. Early scoping sessions were avoided by elected officials; later sessions became a cri de coeur among professional and political classes, strongly favored in Blaine and Ferndale, strongly opposed by Seattle City Council and other governments.

Awash in this strong tide, and in the population center that may proximately suffer worst and benefit least from GPT, Bellingham City Council continues to flap their arms and remain cautiously mute in the discussion. Council offered a few tentative additions to the scoping comments prepared by the mayor, only to have several of them batted away by staff as inappropriate.

“Some of these things,” characterized senior planner Steve Sundin, “were ideas that were more global in nature, like the words ‘climate change.’ While we felt that, while we are concerned about that, we wanted to, as best we can, focus on our areas of expertise, which is Bellingham and the immediate surrounding area.”

“We tried to pare it down to what we believe we have the best handle on, as far as the citizenry of Bellingham are concerned,” he explained.

“We have a climate change action plan for the city, and we are trying to meet these benchmarks,” Council member Jack Weiss protested. “That plan could be completely negated by this project through our town. I think we need to at least describe to the agencies that this is an impact on work we’re doing.

“By not mentioning it in this letter we’re not honoring that earlier work.”

“I think to some extent by not mentioning these concerns we are requiring regulators to read our minds,” Council member Michael Lilliquist observed. “These regulators will never know our community as well as we do, and that is why we need to provide those specifics. They don’t know we have a climate action plan, and they have no way of knowing to look for that.”

The mayor agreed the inclusion was appropriate.

Lilliquist noted other passages had been removed from an earlier draft of the letter, these detailing council concerns about ensuring the mitigation costs of rail impacts are not borne by the public.

“That’s a point we could perhaps press even further,” he said.

Sundin replied that digging into United States Code and federal regulations revealed that the mitigation that may be required by a project that does not benefit to the railroad specifically does not therefore create a cost that must be borne by the railroad. In other words, the passage was removed because—after a century of lobbying of the courts by the nation’s railroads—there is no question the public must bear those mitigation costs.

But that is exactly the reason a protest should be made on behalf of the public interest! In strict adherence to the rules, the rules are stacked against the general (public) in preference to the specific (applicant).

In trying to parse what is reasonable, City Council remains silent on the unreasonable.

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