How the Voters of One Small County May Have Stopped 48 Million Tons of Coal

In a council election unlike any other in the history of Whatcom County, voters sided with representatives believed to be against a proposed coal export facility.
Keep Washington Beautiful - No Coal Exports

Rainforest Action Network projected the phrase "Keep Washington Beautiful No Coal Exports" on industrial buildings in Seattle, Wash. Photo by Rainforest Action Network / Flickr.

Opponents of a plan to ship millions of tons of coal through the Pacific Northwest appear headed for victory in the Whatcom County Council election, after a race that saw more than $1 million in campaign funds pour into the small, rural county race from both environmental and industry groups as well as the candidates' own fundraising efforts.

"The fact that our community couldn't be bought is spectacular."

Coal companies and terminal developers are hoping to ship 48 million tons of coal per year through Washington state via the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. The Whatcom County Council race emerged as a focal point for opposition to the terminal because the council is in charge of permits for the project, which is currently under environmental review.

In an article cross-posted to Grist, Eric de Place and Clark Williams-Derry of Sightline Institute wrote that "burning the 48 million tons of coal proposed for export at the terminal annually would release roughly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide, a staggering figure that amounts to as much carbon pollution as every activity in the state of Washington combined."

The four candidates backed by Washington Conservation Voters are leading in the election returns so far.

"Outside money and outside interests really tried to impact and influence this election," said Crina Hoyer, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a Bellingham-based environmental education organization. "The fact that our community couldn't be bought is spectacular."

The candidates did not explicitly state whether they were for or against coal exports. In Whatcom County, council members have semi-judicial duties and therefore must appear impartial. But that didn't stop supporters of environmental and industry interests, who all worked hard for the slate of candidates they thought shared their goals.

Cloud Peak Energy, a company contracted to ship 16 million tons of coal per year through Gateway Pacific, and SSA Marine, the developer of the terminal, were among the industry donors to groups supporting the candidates thought to be in favor of the terminal. Washington Conservation Voters, an advocacy group for environmental legislation and candidates in the state, fundraised and mobilized volunteers in support of the candidates they believed were opposed to the terminal.

The four candidates backed by Washington Conservation Voters are leading in the election returns so far, with only 5,000 ballots left to be counted. The industry-backed candidates would need to win nearly all of those ballots to overtake their opponents.

Shannon Murphy, program manager for Washington Conservation Voters, said the result of the election reflected unprecedented grassroots support in the county and statewide, with hundreds of volunteers phone-banking and knocking on doors.

"I think the voters spoke loud and clear about their desire for a better future for Whatcom County and Washington state," Murphy said.