About 45 protesters Friday morning accused Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber of going “too far” by encouraging coal-producing states to sue Washington state.
The demonstrators, wearing red and waving anti-coal signs, assembled on the steps of the Cowlitz County Administration Building in Kelso to protest Weber’s lobbying efforts during a trip to Washington D.C. earlier this spring.
A handful of Millennium Bulk Terminals employees arrived about halfway through the demonstration to show support for the company’s $680 million proposed coal terminal in Longview.
While attending a week-long conference in D.C. in March, Weber asked U.S. representatives from Montana and Wyoming to urge their states’ attorneys general to sue Washington in federal court to resolve the six-year-old coal terminal conflict.
The former teacher distributed a homemade pamphlet to U.S. Reps. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., and Liz Cheney, R-Wy., asserting that Washington regulators are violating the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause by arbitrarily denying permits for the Millennium project.
“We should always champion people’s right to dissent and protest,” Weber said when reached by phone Friday evening. “That’s one of the vital elements of the U.S. Constitution, just like the Commerce Clause.”
The pamphlet also accused Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration of impeding foreign and interstate trade by delaying Northwest Innovation Works’ proposed $1.8 billion methanol plant in Kalama.
The two projects would create hundreds of jobs and generate millions in local tax revenue, but environmental groups and concerned residents argue adverse impacts related to the proposals are too great.
Gary Wallace, 66, of Kalama said in an interview that he believed encouraging other states to sue Washington is a violation of the oath county officials swear when they take office.
In addition to upholding the U.S. Constitution, county officials must pledge to uphold Washington’s constitution and state laws.
“We’ve got to make (Weber) aware that he’s not representing the best interests of the state and Cowlitz County,” said Wallace, who is the current president of the Lower Columbia Stewardship Community.
Weber said Friday that he is committed to upholding the state’s constitution and laws, but the U.S. Constitution takes precedence.
“In our system of government, the constitution comes first,” he said.
Weber also reiterated that he wants to get the Millennium conflict resolved so the area can create more family-wage jobs at the industrial-zoned site of the old Reynolds Metals Co. aluminum smelter in West Longview.
“When Olympia tries to regulate interstate trade or foreign commerce, which is not constitutional, it casts a pall over Cowlitz County, and we need to be speaking out on that,” he added.
A row of protesters held individual signs spelling out “Weber Gone Too Far,” a nod to an earlier protest in Olympia this winter where state lawmakers and local officials held signs accusing the state Department of Ecology of overstepping its authority.
(Weber did not participate in the February rally in Olympia.)
"We've told our elected representatives for years that we don't want coal, and there are reasons we don't want coal," said Diane Dick, a prominent critic of the Millennium project. "They have now taken a bias position, which is unethical."
“Shame on you Weber! Have you no conscience?” read a sign held by Krista Mead, 68, a retired school teacher from Longview.
Another protester wore a hat with sign that said “Wrong Way Weber.”
After several protesters spoke against the proposed coal project, the crowd started chanting “people over profits” as a Millennium pickup truck arrived and unloaded a small group of supporters dressed in blue.
Millennium employee Dixie Bailey, 44, said she wanted to support Weber when she heard about the protest.
“Absolutely,” she said when asked whether she agreed that other states should sue Washington for blocking the project.
Bailey noted that a unit train loaded with coal traveled through Kelso on its way to a terminal in British Columbia, Canada during the demonstration.
“Even if he’s beating the Millennium drum, he’s still promoting good business practices in the state, or at least Southwest Washington,” said Millennium supporter Steve Ramy, 60, of Longview.
Millennium employee Lori Black, 52, said that she was thankful for Weber’s support.
“We’re glad he had the courage to stand up for us,” she told The Daily News.
But Wallace, president of LCSC, called the coal project a “dead dog.”
“Why do we want to reinvigorate a dead dog?” he said.
Wallace noted that neighboring Lewis County already has moved ahead of Cowlitz County in clean energy, with plans to place 38 wind turbines, a transmission line and related facilities on Weyerhauser land at the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project. The project will be located less than 15 miles away from a planned 1,000-acre solar farm at the site of a former TransAlta coal mine in south Thurston County.
The Millennium project is now tied up in a series of state-level legal challenges over regulators’ denial of four different permits.
Millennium is challenging the permit denials in state court, arguing the project’s environmental review showed the terminal would meet state and county guidelines.
Millennium’s parent company, Lighthouse Resources, Inc., is also suing Inslee’s administration in federal court for allegedly blocking the project based on a bias against coal.
The complex web of litigation is expected to continue to play out over the summer and into the fall.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct an earlier head count of the protesters.