A coal terminal proposed for rural northwest Washington state is shaping up to be a major headache for Democrats vying to represent Washington's diverse new 1st District.
The Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point near Ferndale, Wash., is entering the next stage of its environmental permitting process this summer and is still at least two years away from breaking ground. But a political tug of war is already under way in the newly drawn House district, pitting two powerful Democratic constituencies -- labor and environmentalists -- against each other over whether the project should go forward.
And the Democratic candidates are the rope.
Most are responding by staying mum. Of the five Democrats who have thrown their hats in the ring so far for the Aug. 7 primary, only centrist state Sen. Steve Hobbs has taken a firm position on the port, coming out in favor of it. The others have avoided taking sides.
"They're afraid to talk about it," said Mark Lowry, president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council.
A former vice chairman of the Whatcom County Democrats, Lowry stepped down from that post recently because of divisions within the party over the project. But Democrats cannot afford internal discord in a district where Snohomish County Councilman John Koster (R) is polling more than 20 points ahead of their candidates, according to a GOP survey taken in late March.
That figure is somewhat misleading, however, given the nature of Washington's primary system. Candidates from all parties will appear together on the primary ballot with the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advancing to the general election. Koster is the lone Republican currently in the race, while five Democrats are running. And the field could grow even bigger, with the filing deadline 10 days away: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who lost a bid for renomination earlier this year, has not ruled out the possibility of moving cross-country to run in Washington's 1st District.
Winning the 1st District seat, which has been reshaped substantially since ex-Rep. Jay Inslee (D) resigned from it earlier this year to run for governor, is going to require Democratic solidarity, Lowry said -- "which is a commodity that's in short supply on the best of occasions."
"Whatever opinions you have, they're going to be very circumspect with them," he said, "because you're going to alienate 50 percent of the people who you're going to want to vote for you, either way you come down on this."
Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, said he had not yet seen the terminal become an issue in the 1st District race, because most of the candidates "just want to stay out of it."
But Oplinger expects that sooner or later, one of the Democratic candidates will come out in opposition to the project as a way of setting himself or herself apart from the rest of the field. "As this gear-up continues, you will see more attempts to both make a play up here in Whatcom Country and be a little more out front about where they are on this project," he said.
Part of what may be giving Democratic candidates some pause is that the district itself is something of a wild card. A product of this year's redistricting effort, Washington's 1st District has been called the most closely divided in the country. The state redistricting commission accomplished that parity by combining the suburban professional hubs of King County with the agriculture-rich Skagit Valley and blue-collar hamlets of rural Whatcom County.
"You don't see anything in common between the north end of the district and the south end of the district," said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. "It really seems like a suburban Seattle district that has an accidental northern part of it."
That northern part is dominated by dairy and raspberry farms and a shrinking industrial base that has left its citizens hungry for new opportunities.
"There's no Microsoft up there," Donovan said.
Perhaps as a result, Democratic contenders from King County who have been environmental champions in the past are holding their fire when it comes to the coal terminal.
Former King County-based Microsoft executives Darcy Burner and Suzan DelBene are two of the Democratic contenders for the new seat. Both have tried in the past to oust Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) in the neighboring 8th District, which leans Democratic, by running to his left.
Reichert, an environmentalist favorite in his own right, was the only Republican last year to vote for a sense of the House resolution affirming U.S. EPA's finding that man-made climate change is occurring.
"Reichert gets good ratings from environmental groups because he has to," Donovan said.
But now Burner and DelBene find themselves competing in a tougher district for Democrats, and neither has taken a firm stance on the terminal.
Burner, the former staff director for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, carved out a nuanced position in a recent interview with local political blogger J. Riley Sweeney.
"I think that it is clear that developing the terminal for exporting American goods makes sense," she said. "The real question is whether it is going to make economic and environmental sense for that thing to be coal."
Another Democratic candidate, former state Rep. Laura Ruderman, threaded the needle in much the same way. She told Sweeney in a March interview that while she supports moving forward with the necessary environmental steps to build the port, she hopes it will export another product.
"The commodities markets are fickle," she said. "And I am hopeful that as we move through this process, we can find a different commodity to be the major export."
The new occupant of the 1st District seat may have very little direct say in whether the Cherry Point terminal is given the green light or not. That decision will be shared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington State Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County. But the district's member of Congress will be hard pressed to remain neutral on such an important local project.
"Most candidates will, I think, have to answer where they stand in relation to the transportation, unloading and loading of a fossil fuel -- coal in this case -- versus jobs," Reichert said in a recent interview.
"Washington state, as you know, is a very strong-minded state when it comes to the environment," he said. "So anything to do with fossil fuels and moving fossil fuels across the state, unloading and loading fossil fuels, will create a huge debate."
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who will lose Ferndale and the Cherry Point site as part of his district after this year, has taken sides.
"My support for the project is based on jobs that it will create in Whatcom County," Larsen said.
Larsen's district will retain Bellingham, the largest city in Whatcom Country and a bastion of environmentalism. The terminal figured heavily in last year's mayoral election, with two leading candidates -- both Democrats -- competing to be the most ardent opponent of the project.
But surveys show the rest of the county does not share Bellingham's aversion to the coal terminal. It stands to gain more economically from its construction and is by nature much more conservative than the college town.
The project promises to create 400 unionized jobs at the terminal and to spur other economic development in the area. It would be a major source of construction jobs during the two or so years it is being built.
"For a county that has not been able to attract good long-term investment that will pay wages that are well above the median income for this area, this is a good opportunity," said Larsen -- who defeated Koster, now the 1st District Republican candidate, in 2000 and 2010.
'We'll be damned if they mess it up'
The first front in the battle over Cherry Point is how broad its National Environmental Policy Act review will be.
Environmentalists hope for a comprehensive programmatic environmental impact statement, which would take into account not only what happens on the 1,100-acre site outside Ferndale but all other direct and indirect activities related to the project from the time the coal is mined in Montana until it is burned in China.
"The legal standard for any EIS is that it needs to disclose and consider all reasonably foreseeable effects of the decision," said Jan Hasselman, a lawyer who has worked on the case for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
"It is our view -- supported by independent research -- that opening up the [Pacific River Basin] to the Pacific export market would drive down commodity prices of coal and incentivize increased consumption in Asia," she said.
The Democratic parties of three northwest Washington counties appeared to side with environmentalists at their nominating conventions late last month when they adopted a platform calling on permitting agencies to take into account "activities related to the mining, rail transport, storage, and shipment of coal from the west coast" when assessing the project's impact on the environment.
Beth Doglio, campaign director of the Seattle-based environmental group Climate Solutions, said Cherry Point and five other such projects proposed for Washington and Oregon would turn the ecology-minded Pacific Northwest "into a fossil fuel highway to Asia."
"We're now looking at 150 million tons of coal going out of Oregon and Washington if all of the proposals were acted on," she said.
Larsen said he did not believe that exporting coal to China and elsewhere in Asia would have any net impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
"They're going to get it from somewhere," he said. "China is going to burn coal for a long time as part of their energy portfolio, and they can get it from Australia, they can get it from Indonesia, or they can get it from the United States."
But Doglio said citizens' concern about the project can be seen in the crowds that show up every time the state's Department of Ecology holds a public meeting on the subject. Attendees have expressed concern about everything from increased congestion and noise from trains carrying coal to the terminal to their diesel emissions to the coal dust that would be dumped in transit.
"The outpouring and the intensity of the opposition to it in these communities is incredible," Doglio said.
But the interest in the project's potential for economic development has been at least as strong, according to local business and union advocates.
"Our position is that anytime someone wants to put $600 million of private investment into your community, the proper thing to do is to welcome it into your community and work with them on the proposal," said Oplinger of the local chamber of commerce.
"Unless it comes at a staggering cost, we want it," Lowry said. Union members do want regulators to be diligent about assessing the project's cost to their community, he said, though they do not think it should consider indirect impacts such as overseas greenhouse gas emissions.
"Labor is not in the habit of trusting multinational corporations," he said. "And we want their feet held to the fire -- this is our community, and we'll be damned if they mess it up."
But local workers have been looking for a new source of industrial employment for decades, he said, and they hope they have found one. Forty percent of the unionized construction workforce is unemployed in rural Whatcom County, Lowry said, which is actually a slight improvement because the local refineries have hired some more workers recently.
"We're selling milk to Canadians and insurance to each other and flipping burgers," he said. "And that's not a way we can make a better life for our kids."
Jeff Johnson, the Seattle-based president of the Washington State Labor Council, said that if he had his "druthers," the Cherry Point facility would not be exporting coal, either. But he said SSA Marine, the local company behind the terminal, has taken a variety of measures to minimize the project's environmental impact.
"While no one would claim it's absolutely environmentally friendly, it seems as if they're really trying to do state-of-the-art protection there so that there is as little environmental impact as possible," he said. "I think that the company is willing to go even further if a good case can be made."
Johnson said his organization has a good working relationship with local environmental groups, including Climate Solutions, but he tried and failed last year to come to a consensus with them on Cherry Point.
But the rural communities around Ferndale are only a small share of the 1st District, and voters farther south may be more inclined to take the environmentalists' view of the project, especially if it is sold to them as contributing to climate change, said Donovan, the political scientist.
"That would probably go over better with the voters in the Microsoft part of the district than the actual coal terminal part of the district," he said. "And there are a lot more voters down there than there are up here."