NPR Story
1:00 am
Thu October 17, 2013

The County Council Election That Could Mean Big Things For Coal Exports

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Whatcom County could one day be the home of the largest coal export facility on the west coast –- which would transfer up to 54 million tons of coal from trains onto ships bound for Asia.

The Whatcom County Council could cast the deciding votes in the permitting of the dock for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. That’s landed this election in the spotlight and it's drawing a lot of outside money.

There are four open seats on the 7-member council. The three council members who are not up for election on this cycle are thought to be supportive of the coal terminal. Opponents of the terminal want to see their favored candidates take the available seats to secure the majority. They think they can accomplish this by retaining two incumbents and picking up the other two positions.

The funny thing is, county council candidates aren’t supposed to say specifically whether they’re for or against the terminal because they’ll eventually act as a sort of judicial body in reviewing the permit applications.

So there’s a lot of indirect messaging going on. Candidates make comments about “creating jobs” or “protecting the environment,” a sort of code for how they might vote in the final permitting of the terminal.

For now, the money is flowing towards the candidates who are sending more pro-environment signals.

(Credit: KUOW/Kara McDermott)

“We’re very committed to fighting and winning any time the issue of climate change is on the ballot,” says Brendon Cechovic, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, a Seattle-based environmental group. “There’s a lot of eyes across the country and around the world watching what’s happening this fall in Whatcom County.”

Washington Conservation Voters has now pumped more than $160,000 into the Whatcom County council race to support candidates it believes will oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

The lion’s share of that money came from California billionaire and environmentalist, Tom Steyer.

At this stage in the game, the four candidates who are believed to oppose the coal export terminal have raised more than three times what their opponents have raised.

“The other side has a lot more money,” says Charlie Crabtree, the chair of the Whatcom County Republican Party.

Crabtree says the coal terminal is everywhere in this election. “It comes in as an undercurrent to almost anything we do in this campaign and what we’re concerned about as Republicans is that we want an opportunity through a valid process, of creating family wage jobs.”

The company that wants to build the coal terminal and the rail company that would service it have given more than $40,000 to the state Republican Party, which then gave about $15,000 to the Whatcom County GOP.

“It is unusual to have billionaire philanthropists and big multinational firms coming in and spending money,” says Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University who has been following politics in Whatcom County for 20 years. “But to see these six-figure dollar amounts being spent by groups that aren’t based here in Whatcom County, not even in Washington, that’s unusual.”

In the past, county council candidates have spent closer to $20,000 to get elected. Things are different now, Donovan says.

“Now you’re looking at $90,000 independent expenditures, candidates raising $80,000-$90,000. The coal issue is helping candidates on both sides raise money, particularly the environmentalists,” Donovan says.

Drive around Whatcom County and you’ll see a lot of yard signs. Some say “No Coal Trains” with a big red “X” through the letters. Others in support of the terminal say “Good Jobs Now: Stop the War on Workers.”

The Gateway Pacific Terminal has become a lightning rod for the bigger cultural differences between the liberal city of Bellingham and the more rural and conservative parts of the county. It’s “crystalized” that cultural divide, Donovan says, “between the environmentalists and the people who want to do what they think they have the right to do with their land.”

Donovan says there are probably about as many anti-coal voters in Bellingham as there are pro-coal voters in the more rural parts of Whatcom County –- and that could make for some really close races.

As it stands right now the county council is thought to be supportive of the coal terminal so the environmentalists would need their candidates to pick up two seats.

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