By Stefanie Donahue
Years before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Pacific International Terminals subsidiary, SSA Marine, a crucial permit to build a coal terminal at Cherry Point, Birch Bay duo Sandy Robson and Dena Jensen were hard at work, immersing themselves in what became an enduring and divisive public debate.
The project caused a stir between proponents, who wanted to bolster the number of living-wage jobs in Whatcom County and opponents, who argued increased train traffic and pollution would harm the community. In May 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the crucial permit on the grounds that the project would impact treaty-protected fishing rights of the Lummi Nation. In February 2017, the applicant withdrew all permit applications for the project.
Robson and Jensen consider the debate their first major venture into community activism. During that period, the pair got involved with the still-active Save Birch Bay group, created six years ago to educate the public and foster discussions about the fossil fuel industry.
“I think Sandy and I both realized very quickly […] that the adverse impacts from the coal terminal would be of direct consequence to those of us in Birch Bay and all along the train route,” Jensen said in an email. “We would have to deal with frequent winds in this area blowing coal dust quickly our way, coating the land, water, residences, schools and businesses, posing a threat to human health and safety and that of other living creatures.”
Robson and Jensen became regulars at public meetings and started piling up stacks of public records for their own research. In 2014, they decided to put their work to good use and launched Coal Stop, a blog dedicated to sharing information about the impact of fossil fuel industries on the community and environment.
“When I saw that what SSA Marine/Pacific International Terminals and its advocacy groups and supporters were selling to our community – in terms of the project – was much different than the reality of what that project truly was, and saw the reality of what the adverse impacts from it would be, I was compelled to get involved,” Robson said in an email.
Since launching CoalStop.com, the pair also pioneered the creation of Noisy Waters Northwest, noisywatersnw.com, a news aggregate that features reports from a variety of sources, including work from Robson. Topics covered on the site vary, and often feature stories from communities neglected by mainstream news outlets, they said.
“Both of us are interested and motivated to look into things beyond only what one typically might find in local news articles on various issues impacting our area and we combine our efforts, which I believe increases the integrity of what we produce,” Robson said.
Over the years, the two have been lauded for their ability to uncover the truth. Most notably, Robson and Jensen fronted an investigation of the county’s Charter Review Commission, which, according to public records obtained by the pair, was interested in changing county council elections to secure support for the Cherry Point coal terminal. Other publications, including the Sightline Institute and The Bellingham Herald, later picked up the story.
“I’m looking for details and/or the truth,” Robson said. “If that truth then weighs heavier on one side than the other, so be it.”
Robson and Jensen’s work did not go unnoticed. Most recently, the pair were named “environmental heroes” by Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities following Robson’s designation as 2015 Paul deArmond Citizen Journalist of the Year. The two join Bob Aegerter, Ellie Kinley and Jeremy Freimund, who were also named environmental heroes this year.
RE Sources for Sustainable Communities has offered the designation to “local leaders, community visionaries and brave-hearted citizens” for the last 14 years. A panel of community members, former environmental heroes, RE Sources staff and board members make the call.
“Our 2017 heroes have confronted and overcome big challenges in order to provide a safe and healthy future for people, wildlife and ecosystem [sic] alike,” said Crina Hoyer, executive director at RE Sources. “Our vision at RE Sources is to see people living satisfying lives in accord with the ecosystems we depend on, generation after generation. We are delighted to highlight the work of our heroes in advancing this shared vision.”
RE Sources for Sustainable Communities will celebrate Jensen, Robson and the other environmental heroes on Thursday, September 7 at Lairmont Manor in Bellingham.
Robson and Jensen expressed gratitude for the recognition and emphasized the importance of organizations like RE Sources, which aim to preserve the health of the community and environment. Other smaller organizations, such as Stand.earth, Redline Salish Sea, Black Lives Matter Bellingham, Community to Community Development, Racial Justice Coalition and the Restorative Community Coalition also receive their stamp of approval, Jensen said.
“I think the current national, political, social and environmental climate is pushing me to continue [to] work all the harder to support and empower those working for social and environmental justice,” Jensen said. “Writing and calling our elected leaders may seem inconsequential to some, but I have seen first-hand that doing so can help effect great change.”
Moving forward, Robson said the pair will continue to investigate and inform through their online platforms. As of late, Robson is setting her sights on the upcoming general election. Visit noisywatersnw.com to learn more.