November 14, 2019 Dena Jensen
It is surely fitting for protectors of Native American treaty rights and the Salish Sea to be enjoying a collective sigh of relief due to the defeat of Tony Larson’s 2019 campaign to become Whatcom County Executive. The particular disaster of a man becoming County Executive, who had championed a proposed coal terminal project at Xwe’chi’eXen that was in opposition to the wishes and treaty rights of Lummi Nation, was averted.
But taking just a moment to appreciate that is about all we have time for because Mr. Larson is certainly not taking any kind of break from engaging with business and corporate interests to influence government policies and fight regulations that seek to preserve and protect our community members; the cultural lands at Xwe’chi’eXen, Cherry Point; and the health and well being of our ecosystems in the Salish Sea.
For a couple years now the Whatcom County Council has worked to come up with and bring forward regulations to help increase community input and overview on fossil fuel project permitting in hopes that dangers associated with those projects can more easily be avoided or mitigated. The amendments can have the additional benefit of increasing opportunities for climate action goals to be accomplished as swiftly as is needed for us to avoid the most dire consequences.
I have listened to the September 12, 2019 town hall meeting and all the work sessions of the Whatcom County Planning Commission regarding the the Cherry Point Comprehensive Plan and code amendments submitted to them for review by the Whatcom County Council in August of this year. In general, the Planning Commissioners have seemed to be looking for technical clarifications — so far, primarily from Cherry Point Industry representatives, but also from the Northwest Clean Air Agency — to help them address various areas of the amendments that each of them, some stakeholders, and County planning staff have identified as needing clarification or modification.
The process has been slow-going, with industry folks not wishing to cooperate in providing answers to some of planning staff’s questions. Also, some commissioners — mostly those who also happen to be ones expressing the most concerns about the current status of the amendments — refused at their October 24, 2019 work session, to add additional work sessions, or even extra hours to already-scheduled work sessions to make more progress on adjustments to the amendments before the end of 2019.
In the meantime, while the Cherry Point policy review by the Planning Commission — and Mr. Larson’s election season campaigning against the Cherry Point amendments — were carrying on, I discovered that Whatcom County’s Business and Commerce Advisory Committee was also involved in Cherry Point-focused activities.
Unrelated to all this, I had decided to check to see if the the Business and Commerce Advisory Committee had proceeded any further in their efforts to get the Whatcom County Council to throw out all existing building codes and create new code from scratch. The committee had appeared before the Council’s Finance and Administrative Services Committee in early July of this year to request this and that the Council declare a housing emergency with a goal to permit certain existing building codes to be ignored for building worker housing, in order that companies could potentially bring in hundreds of workers at a time, from outside Whatcom County, to live and work inside Whatcom County.
However, what I found when I went to the Business and Commerce Advisory Committee meetings webpage (which resides on the Port of Bellingham website) was that the committee had held an October 4, 2019 “SPECIAL” meeting, for which there are meeting minutes posted, but no agenda.
The entire special meeting was not, however, focused on housing this time, but was zeroed in on the Cherry Point Amendments. There are no audio or video recordings of the Business and Commerce Advisory Committee meetings. However, the committee seems to offer detailed notes in their minutes and includes a list of attendees, one of whom was Tony Larson.
To remind folks, the Business and Commerce Advisory Committee was formed in the summer of 2018, with seven of its twenty members being hand-picked by the Port of Bellingham and recommended to the County Council in a letter from Port Director of Economic Development Don Goldberg.
People in attendance that day were listed in the minutes, as follows (I have added positions/affiliations of people in brackets, in instances where they were not noted in the minutes):
Voting members in attendance: Andrew Gamble [operations manager, Petrogas], Paul Burrill [founder and co-owner of Sound Pacific Seafoods], Doug Thomas [chair of the Whatcom Business Alliance Board of Directors] , Ryan Allsop [leader at Allsop, an office and tech accessory retailer], Clark Campbell [president of Gear Aid, outdoor adventure manufacturer], Sarah Rothenbuhler [owner Birch Equipment Rentals]
Calling in: Brad Rader [of Rader Farms in Lynden], Casey Diggs [operations manager at Boundary Bay Brewery]
(Quorum requirements met: 8/14 voting members)
Non-voting members: Jeff Callender [regional director, Public Affairs & Communications at Phillips 66], Don Goldberg [director of economic development, Port of Bellingham]
Public present: Jennifer Noveck [research & communications coordinator, Port of Bellingham], Gina Stark [economic development project manager, Port of Bellingham], Tony Larsen [sic] [president of the Whatcom Business Alliance], Councilor Rud Browne, Councilor Tyler Bird, Brian Heinrich COB Deputy Administrator, Port Director Rob Fix, John Huntley [president/CEO of Mills Electric]
According to the minutes, the specific topic related to the Cherry Point amendments was a letter about the amendments which had been drafted by members of the committee to send to the Whatcom County Council in anticipation of the Council voting on whether to approve or oppose the amendments once they had been revised and returned to them by the Planning Commission. There is no copy of the letter on either the Whatcom County or Port of Bellingham Business and Commerce Advisory Committee pages.
Since people at the meeting seemed to already be familiar with the letter, I looked at some of the other meeting minutes and found the letter and the Cherry Point Amendments had come up for discussion at the September 23, 2019 Business and Commerce Advisory Committee meeting. Doug Thomas made a motion at that meeting to submit a letter in opposition to the Cherry Point amendments. Committee members had approved the motion, with seven in favor of the letter, and one abstention.
Returning to the October 4, 2019 special meeting, I will provide a link and attach screenshots of the minutes. But here are the highlights:
- Council Member Rud Browne said he was there to provide feedback about the letter.
- Andrew Gamble acknowledged industry has been invited to the Planning Commission meetings.
- It was noted that Mr. Gamble was the one working on the letter to the County Council and Don Goldberg would send any comments or edits to him.
- Mr. Gamble noted he was not just working for Petrogas in the committee, but that he was working with Puget Sound Energy, Phillips 66, and BP.
- Clark Campbell suggested rewording the first paragraph of the letter to seek more time to review the amendments in detail so they could offer suggestions. To which Mr. Gamble replied:
“Ok, but the first paragraph we voted on. I am not supportive of weakening the letter or softening. We should give advice that we believe, including myself as an industry professional. This is part and parcel to a resource that upends / stands up our way of life. Fossil fuel resources are so important, movement, transportation, and availability, is so important that the state and federal govt gives every man and woman the right to access. It is regulated at the federal level. If we do not advise the council to not regulate over the top of the federal government. That’s a bad idea. Maybe at the end of the letter we can say do this instead.”
- Tony Larson asked if the Port, as ADO (Associate Development Organization), has evaluated the impact of the amendments on other industries and said that he has a meeting with someone who wants to buy at Cherry Point and wants to know if that’s even feasible. He questioned if the committee had looked at other industries or future potential development.
- Council Member Browne said the letter is not responsive to the proposed ordinance and spoke to the part of the ordinance creating requirements for industries regarding the insurance they carry. He stressed: “The community needs [to be] compensated if something happens. Everyone tries to deflect responsibility.”
- Doug Thomas wanted to know why the railroads weren’t being approached.
- Mr. Gamble noted that the railroad is governed by the federal government and the county can’t do anything about that. He said “We are going to work on the Planning Commission.”
- Mr. Campbell questioned tactics vs. ideological approach. He said if their goal is one of advocacy and that the amendments are bad for business then the letter is fine. “If our intent is to shape what comes out of the Council, we need to reframe.”
- Mr. Thomas said that the letter was more about taking a stand against layers of regulation on business.
- After motions were made regarding proceeding on the letter, and discussion, Mr. Clarke stated that they have a vote on the floor to keep the first paragraph contents and provide feedback to Mr. Goldberg for a follow up session. He then called for the vote, with those in favor, 8, to those opposed, 1.
Thus the approach of the the committee’s letter seems similar to the response of Cherry Point Industry representatives in general, which is taking a stance against the existing amendments entirely, rather than seeking to ensure that regulations in the amendments are not duplicative, or providing insights into how the amendments can better realize their goals of offering community members more opportunity to give input on and gain more protection from more hazardous types of proposed industry projects.
The most recent Planning Commission work session was tonight, November 14, 2019 at 6:00 p.m. There is no recording available at the time of publishing.
There was an October 21, 2019 meeting of the Business and Commerce Advisory Committee, however minutes are not posted yet. Here is a link to the agenda, which lists one of its items as: “Review/modify/approve Letter to Whatcom County Council dated October 4th, 2019″: https://www.portofbellingham.com/DocumentCenter/View/8820/Whatcom-County-Business-and-Commerce-Committee-October-21-2019-agenda
Below are screenshots of the 5 pages of the minutes of the Business and Commerce SPECIAL Meeting Minutes 10-4-2019: