LTTE: Concerned about Whatcom County’s actions adding to economic uncertainty

My Ferndale News | June 25, 2020

It is impossible to overstate the degree of uncertainty that defines today’s economic landscape. An economy that was booming mere months ago has been brought to its knees, with more than 30 million Americans unemployed and the path forward still opaque at best.

It may be some time before we are able to project what the future may hold for the economy here in our own backyard, let alone across the nation. But we can say one thing with absolute certainty today: in a market like this, every single job counts. And it is imperative that we do all we can to protect and preserve the jobs that can sustain our community both during this crisis and during calmer times to come.

We can’t control market conditions. We can – and must – control the policy landscape our community creates for the employers who provide thousands of jobs across Whatcom County.

Unfortunately, the actions taken by the Whatcom County Council, currently in the midst of the most aggressive rewrite of the county’s zoning ordinances in decades, are only adding to the uncertainty already facing our economy.

The changes being pursued in Whatcom County would make it exceedingly difficult for existing businesses at Cherry Point to remain competitive, or for new enterprises to invest and grow in our community. The changes are being pursued, evidently, in the name of environmental stewardship. But even long before the pandemic began to take its toll on the market, the uncertainty and anti-business landscape driven by the Council’s actions were having a direct negative impact on the outlook here in Whatcom County.

First, it was the Green Apple Renewable Fuels Facility. Back in January, Phillips 66 and Renewable Energy Group announced that they were abandoning the permitting process that they had been navigating since announcing the project 2018. The two companies had hoped to build a massive, 250 million gallon-per-year renewable diesel facility within the existing Phillips 66 refinery. The project would have been a boon for Whatcom County, creating jobs, generating revenue, and even (ironically enough) contributing to the sustainability of operations at Cherry Point by bringing renewable fuels to the market.

Unfortunately, according to Phillips 66 and Renewable Energy Group, permitting delays and uncertainties derailed the project. Despite the clear benefits of the project, the County dragged its feet on advancing the process and requested a lengthy and costly environmental impact statement. It was enough to make the costs too high and the path forward too uncertain.

The County Executive expressed shock and disappointment at the loss of the “much needed” project. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last such shock suffered by Whatcom County in the first part of 2020.

Last month, Alcoa announced that it would be curtailing production at its Intalco Works smelter in Whatcom County. In operation since 1966, the smelter employed 700 workers. And despite ongoing efforts to improve the facility in recent years, management announced in a press release that the site was no longer competitive given declining market conditions.

Economic analysts expect the loss of the facility to cost the community around 1,400 jobs when all is said and done – another devastating blow at a time when every job counts.

The closure of Intalco is a tragedy that will have a negative far reaching impacts in our County. As being formerly employed at Intalco for just over 10 years, I know many of those people and their families. Today, I work at Petrogas, also located at Cherry Point. We must have business regulations that are more effective in supporting existing employers in Whatcom County and encourages new employers to locate here.

The regulatory changes proposed by the Whatcom County Council for Cherry Point have always had questionable positive value for public safety and the environment, but amid the upheaval of the last few months, the negative impacts to our economy far outweigh the highly uncertain value of the County Council’s proposed changes.

The path forward for all businesses is fraught with uncertainty. Unfortunately, we have only seen the beginning of the economic damage done by COVID 19. There will be many businesses tethering on the edge to stay open. Our leaders must do everything they can to implement policies and regulations to prevent business closures and layoffs.

Right now, the Whatcom County Council’s actions are amplifying uncertainty for companies doing their all to continue to create jobs, revenue, and opportunity in our community.

This can’t continue. Today and for the foreseeable future, officials must focus on stability and certainty – not environmental showmanship. The stakes are too high and the potential costs of such actions are too great.

Whatcom County is a great place to live and work. Let’s do all we can to keep it that way.

Gatlin McConnell