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The Gristle

A stocking full of coal

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A STOCKING FULL OF COAL: Police arrested Occupy Bellingham protesters who blocked railroad tracks near downtown Monday. In a daring and potentially dangerous protest, some chained themselves together with bicycle locks as police moved in to remove and arrest them. The demonstration was part of a wider effort to disrupt West Coast port operations, with protestors blocking tracks in cities like Longview and Seattle to call attention to a range of financial and social reforms. Bellingham’s rally added additional seasonings: Activists also protested the movement of coal through the city to service the West Coast’s largest coal export facility proposed at Cherry Point.

Action is stirring against the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, a design with capacity to ship as much as 48 million tons of coal per year from Montana to Asian markets. Nascent efforts are bubbling as citizens prepare a referendum on GPT for the November ballot. In parallel action, Bellingham-based RE Sources filed a lawsuit this week, charging the project proponents with violations of the federal Clean Water Act in connection with grading and tree-clearing at the terminal site last summer.

Most surprising, the City of Edmonds last month approved a resolution actively opposing the GPT project. Edmonds City Council unanimously agreed—based on concerns about potential impacts to air, traffic, commerce and quality of life resulting from an increase of up to 18 trains a day through that city—to urge the governor and the state Legislature to draft a comprehensive policy opposing coal export terminals in Washington State.

Edmonds City Council expressed urgency in their decision, noting the governor is poised to propose state policy regarding coal export early next year.

The silence of the City of Bellingham on the issue has become deafening.

In October, a campaigning mayor sent out a mailer declaring that, “A vote for Dan Pike is another vote against the coal port.”

How, exactly? Having made the offer, what’s the procedure?

City administration has offered no official action since early summer, when the mayor requested the state Dept. of Ecology take a joint role with Whatcom County in the project’s environmental review (SEPA). The manner of the request, less so its content, drew angry protests from the county.

For their part, Bellingham policymakers have issued no official comment on the proposal since May, when council outlined the impacts of the project that would have to be mitigated in order to win the city’s support for GPT. That’s a far distance from actually opposing the terminal.

Despite staking bold positions on the issue of coal export, the departing mayor has not delivered administrative recommendations to policymakers on COB’s response to the coal pier. Recommendations might’ve included a draft resolution, similar to Edmonds, stating the city’s opposition to the proposed pier, outlining principles the council will use to craft policy decisions about freight mobility as the project moves into scoping and perhaps beyond, into permitting. As a former project manager for the state Dept. of Transportation on issues of freight mobility, Dan Pike has knowledge to share with council.

The City of Edmonds is clearly aware the clock is ticking on powerful decisions in Olympia regarding the scope of issues that must be addressed by GPT, the railroad, and project advocates, yet Bellingham City Council has yet to form its own public action plan, or enlist a task force or commission to craft proposals they might support.

Such a plan might detail the strategic relationships city leaders must forge with other municipalities around the state, like Edmonds. And rather than leave the matter wholly to citizens and signature gatherers, council and legal staff could also begin to channel direct democracy in the form of their own ballot referendum.

Has the city budgeted for the legal and technical expertise Bellingham will need to challenge the coal pier in the (likely) event the project’s scope will prove insufficient? We don’t see the request in the budget.

Frankly, it’s going to take teamwork and pressure just to herd City Council and the incoming administration into a coherent early, united stand on coal.

A plurality of council members are strong supporters of the union and union imperatives, imperatives that favor the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Indeed, notable council members in the fall of 2010 thought (unwisely) to introduce a measure in support of GPT at the urging of their AFL-CIO supporters.

Council may also be reluctant to expose the City of Bellingham to potential litigation should COB adopt an aggressive (and unsupportable) position on the coal pier. Federal and state transportation and commerce imperatives trump municipal actions, as voters in Alaska learned earlier this fall when the state sued to overturn a municipal initiative to halt gold and copper mining near one of the world’s premier salmon fisheries.

Residents of a Bristol Bay borough voted to ban large-scale resource extraction, including mining, that would “destroy or degrade” salmon habitat. But the state, in its lawsuit against the borough, claims the initiative is trumped by Alaska law and the state’s authority to govern the management and development of mineral resources. The state is asking a judge to keep the borough from enforcing the measure.

Bellingham could find itself in similar straights unless response is sophisticated and coordinated.

In the chill of winter, the city needs to light the coal furnace.

SVCR Don McLean
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