SEATTLE — An unprecedented amount of outside money pouring into local elections in Whatcom County may shape whether the area becomes home to the largest coal-shipping terminal on the West Coast.
A $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal project proposed outside Bellingham could export as much as 48 million tons of coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia.
An environmental political action committee that has gotten a chunk of its money from a California billionaire has given $224,000 to back candidates it believes are opposed to that project.
Meanwhile, coal interests, including one of the largest U.S. coal producers, have given more than $100,000 to a local conservative political committee that backs candidates it believes support business growth.
"It's just really unheard-of," said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He added that he's not even sure how one would spend that much money in "this little county." About 200,000 people live in Whatcom County, about 80 miles north of Seattle.
Four of the seven seats on the Whatcom County Council are up for grabs Nov. 5. The council will eventually decide whether to approve two permits for the coal-export terminal, but the project also requires permits from the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Coal is "the 800-pound gorilla in the election," Donovan said. "It's dominating how they're talking, even though they're not talking about how they're voting on the thing."
Guessing on positions
Candidates have kept mum on the coal project; council members have been told they cannot pre-judge the project or it will open the process up to legal challenges, he and others said.
In the face of that silence, independent political groups are stepping in to help voters decide which candidates to pick — even without knowing which way they'll lean on the issue.
The Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund has independently spent $224,000 in direct mailing and door-to-door canvassing to support four candidates — Rutherford Browne, Ken Mann, Carl Weimer and Barry Buchanan, according to independent expenditure reports. The group has also spent $18,200 to oppose incumbent Kathleen Kershner.
The top contributor to the PAC is NextGen Climate Action Committee, set up in Washington by Thomas Steyer, a former hedge fund manager and environmentalist.
"The Whatcom County Council will be making a key decision in the permitting for that proposed facility. It's critically important that we elect folks who share our values," said Brendon Cechovic, executive director of the Washington Conservation Voters. "It is a lot of money for a local election."
Cechovic said the group plans to spend more but hasn't decided how much.
Meanwhile, Save Whatcom, a political action committee that formed two months ago, has raised about $165,000, with $50,000 each from Cloud Peak Energy and Global Coal Sales. SSA Marine of Seattle, which is developing the project, also gave $12,000.
Wyoming-based Cloud Peak is one of the largest U.S. coal producers. Earlier this year, it announced an agreement with SSA Marine of Seattle for the option to ship up to 16 million tons a year through the proposal coal terminal.
Save Whatcom has given most of its money, $154,000, to another political action committee, Whatcom First.