A $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal project proposed outside Bellingham could export as much as 48 million tons of coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia.
An environmental political action committee which has gotten a chunk of its money from a California billionaire has given $224,000 to back candidates they believe are opposed to that project.
Meanwhile, coal interests, including one of the largest U.S. coal producers, have given more than $100,000 to a local conservative political committee that backs candidates they believe support business growth.
"It's just really unheard of," said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He added that he's not even sure how one would spend that much money in "this little county." About 200,000 people live in Whatcom County, located about 80 miles north of Seattle.
Four of the seven seats on the Whatcom County Council are up for grabs in the Nov. 5 election. The council will eventually decide whether to approve two permits for the coal-export terminal, but the project also requires permits from the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Coal is "the 800 pound gorilla in the election," Donovan said. "It's dominating how they're talking, even though they're not talking about how they're voting on the thing."
Candidates have kept mum on the coal project; council members have been told they cannot pre-judge the project or it will open the process up to legal challenges, he and others said.
In the face of that silence, independent political groups are stepping in to help voters decide which candidates to pick -- even without knowing which way they'll lean on the issue.
The Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund has independently spent $224,000 in direct mailing and door-to-door canvassing to support four candidates -- Rutherford Browne, Ken Mann, Carl Weimer and Barry Buchanan, according to independent expenditure reports. The group has also spent $18,200 to oppose incumbent Kathleen Kershner.
The top contributor to the PAC is NextGen Climate Action Committee, set up in Washington state by Thomas Steyer, a former hedge fund manager and environmentalist.
"The Whatcom County Council will be making a key decision in the permitting for that proposed facility. It's critically important that we elect folks who share our values," said Brendon Cechovic, executive director of the Washington Conservation Voters. "It is a lot of money for a local election."
Cechovic said the group plans to spend more but hasn't decided how much.
Meanwhile, Save Whatcom, a political action committee that formed two months ago, has raised about $165,000, with $50,000 each from Cloud Peak Energy and Global Coal Sales. SSA Marine of Seattle, which is developing the project, also gave $12,000.
Wyoming-based Cloud Peak is one of the largest U.S. coal producers. Earlier this year, it announced an agreement with SSA Marine of Seattle for the option to ship up to 16 million tons a year through the proposal coal terminal.
Save Whatcom has given most of its money, $154,000, to another political action committee, Whatcom First. Campaign records show Whatcom First has so far spent about $17,000 supporting four council candidates -- Kershner, Ben Elenbaas, William Knutzen and Michelle Luke -- and two candidates running for Port of Bellingham.
The Whatcom County Democrats filed a complaint with the state attorney general, accusing Whatcom First and Save Whatcom of violating campaign finance laws by shifting money between the committees to hide donor names from the public.
The attorney general's office has forwarded the complaint to the Public Disclosure Commission, agency spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said.
Lori Anderson, a PDC spokeswoman, said she didn't know the specifics of the complaint but said: "In general, a political committee can raise money and transfer that money to another political committee, provided the original committee has $10 from 10 Washington state registered voters."
"Every donor and penny of every donation" to Save Whatcom has been disclosed, said the group's spokeswoman Kris Halterman. The pro-business group formed in response to a county Democrats resolution calling for no new development at Cherry Point.
Halterman said the environmental PAC and the candidates it has supported have far outspent the other candidates. "The numbers say that this fight is still not fair in terms of dollars available to each side, but we will do our best to alert voters as to the choices involved," she said in a statement.
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