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Stakeholders say collaboration key to Cherry Point regulatory changes

Stakeholders say collaboration key to Cherry Point regulatory changes

The Whatcom County Council has unanimously approved regulatory changes to the Cherry Point industrial area following an extensive six-year process working with labor, industry, and environment representatives. Individuals representing those groups praised the code amendments prior to the July 27 vote as representing successful stakeholder collaboration.

“No one got everything they wanted, but we managed to reach a compromise, which is huge,” UBC Local 70 Vice President Zach McCown told the county council.

The Cherry Point industrial zone is one of the most regulated and environmentally clean in the world. For laborers like McCown, it provides approximately 3,320 jobs that pay a median wage of $110,000.

“I’ve been able to provide for my family and offer resources to my community with this working wage,” he said.

The new changes mean additional prohibited uses while also allowing certain new construction and expansion. Those changes were based on recommendations from the county Planning Commission submitted a year ago and were based on numerous work sessions with stakeholders. The lengthy discussions over those changes reflected their potential to bolster – or undermine – a regional economy already reeling from the curtailment of work at Alcoa Intalco’s smelting plant. Existing regulations were also blamed for the loss of a planned 250-million-gallon-per-year renewable diesel facility within Phillip 66’s refinery, which was instead built in Louisiana.

Western States Petroleum Association Northwest External Affairs Senior Coordinator Holli Johnson said that the project developers “pulled the plug because of permitting uncertainty. That’s an issue that all of the industries are facing at this time.”

She added that were the amended regulations too restrictive, “it really creates an area that economically is not viable for the jobs that it creates.”

The new regulations prohibit new fossil fuel refineries and transshipment facilities, in addition to coal power plants and new piers or docks. Renewable fuel refineries or transshipment facilities also cannot be converted for fossil fuel. At the same time, certain types of upgrades or changes including safety and environmental improvements, maintenance, and storage would be allowed as permitted uses.

“We were interested in the facilities able to operate as they have been, and be safe, and be able to modernize as needed,” Johnson said. “The new regulations that were passed out of the council do that. They allow for some expansion but also make sure that the facilities operate safely and provide safe and affordable fuel.”

A major concern for industry and labor throughout the process was what projects would be classified as conditional use permits (CUPs). Though allowed in theory, CUP projects must undergo a much more extensive process, and the process gives the county greater discretion to approve or reject a permit application.

The regulations ultimately approved by the council classify the following as requiring CUPs:

  • Refinery expansion that increases its daily max capacity to process and ship oil by more than 10,000 barrels a day.
  • Any increase in train oil loading and unloading frequency that goes beyond any limits set by the county, state, or federal government.

These CUP projects must document direct and indirect environmental impacts if a project is anticipated to emit more than 10,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually. Potential mitigation opportunities must also be identified.   

BP West Coast Senior Government Affairs Manager Tom Wolfe told the county council at its July 27 meeting that regulatory changes “show a skeptical public that Whatcom County is a place where the three Cs – compromise, concession, and civility – can coexist. I know how hard compromise and progress are to achieve. I’ve seen many failed attempts at moving the needle.” Wolfe said he appreciates that work done to “find that sweet spot: the area where no one gets exactly what they want, but everybody gets what they need. These skills are lacking in so many policy discourses right now.”

“For years were talking at each other,” Johnson said. “It gave us the opportunity to sit down and talk with each other. It really showed that we really weren’t that far apart.”

County Councilmember Barry Buchanan told colleagues that the regulatory package is “a lesson to other jurisdictions all across this country that you can work together, you can do things that are great for your community. It’s just win-win-win-win.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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