Whatcom County Council's virtual meeting on May 19, 2020

Whatcom County Council Approves Virtual Public Hearing – Set to Vote on Ninth Extension of Cherry Point Expansion Moratorium

In Cherry Point Industrial Area, News, Whatcom County Council by CTNW News

The Whatcom County Council has introduced for a public hearing another extension of its interim moratorium on expansion of/or new crude oil exporting facilities at the Cherry Point Industrial Zone. If passed it will be the ninth time that the Council extends the moratorium.

A “virtual public hearing” on the moratorium extension will take place June 2, 2020 at 6 pm. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and Washington State Proclamation 20-28, Councilmembers are meeting remotely using Zoom Webinar and will not be present in the courthouse to hear public comments in person.

The public can submit comments before the meeting by mail or email, or speak during the public hearing by phone or via Zoom. Instructions are on the county’s new virtual public hearing page.

Ordinance AB2020 – 217 would extend for another six months the “interim moratorium on the acceptance and processing of applications and permits for new or expanded facilities in the Cherry Point urban growth area, the primary purpose of which would be the shipment of unrefined fossil fuels not to be processed at Cherry Point.”

Cherry Point is currently the home of two refineries that provide many of Whatcom County’s highest paying jobs. The interim moratorium will continue to prevent the refineries, or other companies, from approval for permits that expand the ability to ship unrefined fossil fuels, until the county Planning Commission can finalize their recommendations for new zoning rules that would ban this type of development permanently.

The introduction of this latest moratorium extension was passed by a vote of 4–3 at the Whatcom County Council’s virtual meeting on May 19, 2020. Council members Ben Elenbaas, Kathy Kershner, and Tyler Byrd voted against introduction. Councilmember Kershner wanted to pull the moratorium extension from introduction and let it the moratorium expire.

Kershner commented to the group, “During this time of absolute uncertainty with businesses, with us losing the Green Apple Energy renewable fuels project, with the notification that Alcoa is going to be discontinuing business in Whatcom County, with a budget that We don’t know how or what our budget is going to look-like in the next year–or two–or three, I don’t think that the Council should be taking any action that would further discourage our industries at Cherry Point and continue to show them that this an unfriendly business environment.”

“I think that we should be walking very carefully through this process, and so therefore I’m not going to support introducing this ordinance and I’m not going to support passing it,” Kershner said.

The interim moratorium started in August 2016 over concerns that shipping crude oil out of Whatcom County would lead to an increase in oil train traffic and an increase in accidents. That was two months after a Union Pacific oil train crashed in the Columbia River Gorge on its way to a refinery in Tacoma, spilling 42,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil and starting a major fire.

Council members discussed how long the “interim” moratorium could continue. The council’s legal counsel Karen Frakes said, there’s no-limit on how many times it could be extended.

“State law doesn’t put a limit on the number of six-month extensions we can have, and there is case law that supports temporary moratoriums lasting a lot longer than this one has lasted,” Attorney Frakes explained.

Frakes comment was that this could be the last extension of the temporary crude oil export moratorium.” She said, “the new zoning rules would be complete if not for the fact that the Planning Commission had to cancel all of its meetings until further notice due to the pandemic and the Governor’s stay-at-home order.

“I think it’s probably fair to say that the only reason we’re here doing this right now is because of COVID,” Frakes said. “I think if we were able to carry on with the meetings of the Planning Commission, this would have been finished by now and there wouldn’t have been a need to seek an additional moratorium.”

She said: “The Planning Commission is on the literal verge of making its final decision, and as soon as they are able to proceed with regular meetings they will be able to address this and, I anticipate, get it to the council very quickly.”

Video of the full May 19, 2020 Whatcom County Council virtual meeting

written by Mike Curtiss