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Whatcom County Council Races Attracting Big Money Over Coal

Elaine Thompson
Associated Press

An unprecedented amount of outside money has been pouring into local elections in Whatcom County to fund both sides of the fight stemming from the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point.

Four of the county council's seven seats are up for grabs. And two political action groups have formed to try and tip the balance in the Gateway Pacific project north of Bellingham. 

It’s been called the obscure county election that could change the planet. The Whatcom County Council will decide whether to issue construction permits to Gateway Pacific, and whether coal trains up to 18.5 miles long  start rolling along waterfronts up and down the state each day.

The council’s power over the deepwater port has attracted deep pockets, amounting to nearly $1 million in political fundraising so far.

“It is not at all normal to have this many people caring what’s going on up in Whatcom County,” said Todd Donovan, professor of political science at Western Washington University. Part of the draw, said Donovan, is the fact that the candidates have been told they have “quasi-judicial” status and should stay mum on the project or risk legal challenges.

“So based on that advice, nobody is explicitly saying whether they would vote for permitting or against permitting this coal facility. But that’s what a lot of this money is doing. It’s letting people connect the dots,” Donovan said.

Washington Conservation Voters has identified two incumbents and two challengers they think will vote against the coal terminal: Rutherford Browne, Ken Mann, Carl Weimer and Barry Buchanan, according to independent expenditure reports. And the group's Action Fund has spent nearly $250,000 already on direct mailers, phone banks, and doorbelling.

“We’ll knock on something like 40,000 doors before this campaign is over," said executive director Brendon Cechovic.

"It’s every day. It’s all day. It’s been going on for quite a while, and it won’t stop until Election Day,” he said.

On the other side of the fight is Save Whatcom, a political action committee that formed two months ago to counter the aggressive messaging from the anti-coal lobby. It has raised about $170,000 so far with three big donations from coal companies. But the group's volunteer chair Kris Halterman says the terminal fight carries a larger message.

“They’re painting it about coal, but really, it’s so much bigger than that. We have much bigger issues. And yes, there’s a lot of outside money coming in," Halterman said. "And we here in Whatcom County want to amplify our voice that, you know, we need jobs and business growth here. We need to keep the businesses and industries that are here, and not threaten them by shutting it down.”

The environmental groups have outraised Save Whatcom by about 3 to 1. But Donovan says these races typically split nearly 50-50 along partisan lines, so it will be interesting to see how the big outside money affects the election outcome.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to