Executive candidates debate regional issues

Satpal Sidhu (left) and Tony Larson (right) participate in a debate on Wednesday, Oct. 9. // Photo courtesy of Noble Solana-Walkinshaw

By Melody Kazel

County council candidates stepped up to the podium to talk about regional issues on Wednesday, Oct. 9, in front of an audience of county residents in the Baker Creek Place Banquet Room. Most of the night centered around the live debate between Satpal Sidhu and Tony Larson, who are running for County Executive, the top administrative role in Whatcom County government. 

There were two main points of contention between the candidates.  

The first was the Cherry Point industrial zone. Since 2018, the County Council has been working to amend the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan and Whatcom County Code to address ways to limit the negative impacts from crude oil, coal, liquefied petroleum gases and natural gas exports from the Cherry Point Urban Growth Area. 

Each candidate was asked what they think about the Whatcom code amendments that address the comprehensive plan for Cherry Point. 

Sidhu referred the audience to a resolution, number 2019-037, which outlines potential fossil fuel code changes and alterations to Cherry Point policy. The code, in part, would prohibit new fossil fuel refineries and facilities, but would still allow for limited expansion of current facilities.

It also states that renewable fuel facilities would be “treated similarly to fossil fuel facilities in terms of permit allowances.”

Larson said industry worked with the Whatcom County Council for three years on amendments to the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan. Larson said everything changed at a meeting on January 15.

“A new document came in. All the work that had been done prior to that had been dismissed,” Larson said. 

The new document was a different plan for amendments than what the committee had been working on cooperatively, according to a recording from a Council Special Committee of the Whole meeting on Jan. 15.

The second point of disagreement occurred when the candidates were asked about how they plan to address environmental issues such as water quality. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, there have been concerns about the lack of oxygen in Lake Whatcom due to increased phosphorus and fecal coliform bacteria, which could threaten fish and plant life in the lake. 

Larson proposed a plan to improve Lake Whatcom’s water quality by infusing oxygen into the bottom of the lake. 

“We could do a three year pilot program,” Larson said. “It would cost about $280,000 and we can actually test the results.”

Infusing oxygen into a lake bottom is possible through a technique called destratification, which has been investigated by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Destratification artificially circulates lake water, exposing it to more atmospheric oxygen which the water can potentially absorb, according to an issue of Lake Notes prepared by Holly Hudson and Bob Kirschner of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. 

Sidhu said this process of injecting air into Lake Whatcom and disturbing the bottom of the lake could create a bigger problem. 

“It will offset all the work we have done in the last 10 years,” Sidhu said. 

The Department of Ecology is working with Bellingham and Whatcom County to improve the levels of dissolved oxygen in Lake Whatcom by developing a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for fecal coliform and phosphorus in the lake. The TDML shows the maximum amount of phosphorus and bacteria Lake Whatcom can receive daily while still meeting water quality standards, according to the Department of Ecology. 

Despite these major points of contention, there was one topic that the candidates agreed on. It was the second part of a question on how they plan to fulfill their duties as an executive. The candidates were asked how they would streamline the permit and review process. They were also asked if there should be increased focus on customer services for people seeking assistance for projects submitted through the County planning services department.

Larson spoke about how the department needs to work together and create a culture where everyone knows that people respect the need for rules and regulations. He also said he wants to reach out to people in the community who want project assistance. 

“We need to get feedback from the people that are actually using the services,” Larson said. 

When Larson’s time was called, Sidhu said, “Actually I will save you two minutes. I totally agree with Tony. What he said, I will do the same.”

Candidates from the 4th District, Brian Estes and Kathy Kershner, spoke at the event as well. Each gave a short statement about themselves and why they are running for county office.  They were followed by candidates from the 5th District, Ben Elenbass and Natalie McClendon. Candidates running for at-large position B couldn’t make it to the event because they were out of the state. Their spokespeople gave statements.

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