Cherry Point, COVID, and the path forward in 2020

Four years after our communities stopped the would-be biggest coal terminal in North America, Whatcom County is working on new rules for permitting fossil fuel industries at Cherry Point. | May 15, 2020

Learn more: June 1st webinar

If we should take away any lesson from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that ignoring major risks can come at a tremendous, painful cost.

This is a time we must protect our Pacific Northwest home and move the needle towards a resilient, local, green economy — not take on additional risks to our health and the Salish Sea region. How Whatcom County decides to improve outdated rules for heavy industry along the waters of Cherry Point could set the stage for keeping people and essential natural functions safe. Or it could leave open the doors for new and existing hazards to community health, clean water, and clean air.

Some (super condensed) background

In 2016, Lummi Nation and our community blocked the would-be largest coal export terminal in North America, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recognized the terminal would violate Lummi Nation’s treaty fishing rights. Soon after, Whatcom County Council put a temporary moratorium preventing new fossil fuel transshipment infrastructure at Cherry Point, until the county could create stronger protections for people and the environment from impacts of fossil fuel projects. After a years-long process, the Council presented a set of draft amendments with those legal protections.

Above: Old shipping conveyor near the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, an area of particular ecological, economic, and cultural importance protected under the state Aquatic Reserves system.

The next step

Until the County approves final, lasting protections, we need the Whatcom County Council to renew the current moratorium on permits that would increase transshipment of coal, oil, or gas through Cherry Point terminals. This will take place at the Council’s June 2nd public meeting. Without this, there is little standing in the way of existing terminals reconfiguring to ship more crude oil, tar sands and fracked gas overseas. And to make sure Whatcom County Council does that, we need you.

Why we need to take action against risky fossil fuel expansion

To kick off a recovery from this period that’s strained our resources and laid bare the fragility of the economic systems we rely on, we have to start by not digging the hole any deeper. There are major risks we face in Whatcom County that we have an opportunity to mend in the coming weeks and months:

  • Expanding oil and gas increases the risk of devastating spills and explosions: Finding themselves unable to build new export terminals, oil companies in the U.S. and Canada are seeking to expand capacity to ship oil through existing ports — and Cherry Point is a prime target. We need to reduce the real risk of an environmental disaster in Whatcom County. A major oil spill from Cherry Point tankers could easily devastate Whatcom County’s local fishing sector, our endangered orca population, shorelines, beach and boating recreations, tourism, and create a ripple through the local economy for an extended period.
  • Ongoing pollution and piecemeal changes have profound, cumulative impacts: Oil companies have largely gotten a free pass in this county for over 60 years, getting major permits approved without adequate environmental review or safety requirements. Under current statute, expansions of existing facilities can be permitted with minimal review, without recognition of their impacts. We can’t let a series of small oil and gas projects cause unknown harm to communities, natural areas and economies.
  • In 2013, Whatcom County permitted two oil train terminals without public review of their impacts — despite the major risks posed by crude oil trains that have exploded twelve times in the U.S. and Canada since, sometimes killing people. We can’t let projects like these slip through the cracks.
The path forward

Can we protect local jobs while safeguarding clean air and water? Can we keep communities safe from the risks and hazards that come with oil trains, pipelines, and tankers?

Yes. But we first need a balanced, reasonable policy update for Cherry Point. Importantly, the Cherry Point amendments currently on the table would block a ramp-up of tankers of tar sands oil (the dirtiest crude oil that is extremely hard to clean up) operating here and placing our communities, natural areas, and economies at risk.

What protections could the Whatcom County Council vote on later in 2020?
  • Prohibit new coal, oil or gas transshipment facilities.
  • Prohibit new shipping piers, docks, or wharfs in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.
  • At existing facilities, fossil fuel storage and transshipment upgrades or additions would require conditional use permits with protections.
  • Stronger “change of use” definitions so that existing terminals serving refineries do not change use to become transshipment hubs for unrefined fossil fuels like crude oil, tar sands, coal or fracked gas.

Your input over the next few weeks and months will be crucial to safeguard communities from industrial impacts. Stay tuned for more background on Cherry Point industries and why better industrial land use rules matter in Whatcom County and far beyond. The changes you help make here, this year, will ripple outward.

This is part one in a short series examining the last four years of local government’s moves to manage a place where the importance of culture, ecology, and economy converge: Cherry Point. Read two pieces we published in the Whatcom Watch in 2019 (start here) and January 2020.