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Debate Swirls In Bellingham As Cherry Point Faces Development Crossroads

Elaine Thompson
AP Images
A dilapidated structure is seen jutting out into the Strait of Georgia along the beach at Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham, Wash. In the distance behind are an existing aluminum plant and oil refinery.

It’s been about two months since permits were denied for the development of the controversial Gateway Pacific coal export terminal north of Bellingham.

Now the Whatcom County Council is under fire for considering a measure that would restrict new developments for handling of fossil fuels at the site.

The Whatcom County Council is in the final stages of updating its comprehensive plan for the next 20 years. Perhaps the hardest part of that is dealing with Cherry Point, where the Army Corps of Engineers decided in May that treaty fishing rights of theLummi Tribe must be protected.

County Council member and political science professor Todd Donovan says that decision is the latest of many restrictions on the property that the council is trying to reflect as it plans for the future. Some business and labor groups who want to grow jobs in the area have suggested that the council is trying to restrict all development or expansion at Cherry Point. Donovan says it’s more complicated than that.

“It’s trying to come up with tools or language to deal with the fact that we can’t have a coal export facility there. We probably can’t expand piers there. There’s federal law even before this saying that we can’t increase crude export,” he said. “We need a planning document that reflects that reality.”

He says the restriction on crude oil stems from an amendment to federal lawby Senator Warren Magnusson in 1977. And they’re trying to write a plan that makes sense, while still supporting two oil refineries, an aluminum smelter and industrial zoning in the area.

“We need to figure out how to do that such that the industries there can thrive and can expand. But the shipment by water export stuff is something that – that’s just a reality—that that can’t be done,”  Donovan said.

But he says manufacturing or light industry would be welcomed.  

In response to accusations that the proposal is last minute, Donovan says the council only made it public in recent weeks, though they have been working on it since January. He agrees more time may be needed to incorporate public concerns.  

The Whatcom County Council takes up its comprehensive plan again on Tuesday, when much public comment is anticipated.  

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