Port of Olympia commissioners want the city of Olympia to make the first move when deciding how to handle protests over controversial cargo.
At Monday’s Port of Olympia Commission meeting, the commissioners postponed a discussion on two Olympia City Council resolutions: one that opposes oil fracking, and another that supports the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.
The discussion also called for a meeting between port commissioners and city officials — a meeting that commissioners say the city should initiate.
From Nov. 11-18, dozens of protesters occupied train tracks in downtown Olympia to block shipments of oil fracking materials coming out of the port. Law enforcement used flash bombs and pepper balls to clear the camp, and 12 protesters were arrested.
Last week, Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts addressed the City Council, criticizing the port for inciting protests and clashing with “community values” that oppose fracking-related shipments. Roberts said the Police Department has become “the scapegoat for the decisions the port is making” and that “continued shipments will only erode more trust and put more people and businesses in our community at risk.”
At Monday’s meeting, Downing said the port commissioners await the city’s response to Roberts’ comments and “need to know where the city stands on protecting individuals, private property rights and businesses that operate within their jurisdiction.”
Downing said the city should initiate this conversation with commissioners because of its 2014 anti-fracking resolution, which specifically mentions port activity. He also said the port would be “going against our mission” by initiating a meeting “whose premise is to control cargoes” at the port.
“I encourage the city of Olympia to invite us to a meeting,” Downing said.
City Manager Steve Hall told The Olympian that city staff needs direction from the council to set up such a meeting. The next opportunity to do so would be Dec. 6.
Hall said the city “very much values our strong working relationship with the port.”
“I am also certain the city will want to reinforce its messages about controversial cargoes and the impacts on the community, the port and the city’s resources and relationships,” Hall wrote in an email. “At this time, I am not sure about the best options to engage to ensure that we are all hearing one another on these important and difficult issues.”
At Monday’s commissioner meeting, cargo was a hot topic among those participating in public comment.
Former Olympia City Councilman T.J. Johnson said the port’s willingness to accept fracking-related cargo demonstrates a conscious contribution to climate change and an endorsement of practices that damage the environment.
“You should care about what the community thinks,” he told commissioners. “Stop taking my money to destroy the planet.”
Olympia resident Bob Ziegler echoed a similar sentiment regarding military cargo and fracking-related cargo at the marine terminal.
“There are social costs to the products you have insisted on sticking with,” he said.
But many longtime dock workers said the port plays a critical role in Thurston County’s economic infrastructure. They said protesters can have a negative impact on local jobs and businesses.
Duane Napoleon of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 47 said that opposition to all types of cargo is nothing new.
“Everything that comes through here is controversial by somebody’s standards,” he said.
Commissioner Bill McGregor reiterated his support for keeping open the marine terminal. He said the port, which operates at a loss, can someday become a thriving entity without taxpayer help.
“It all comes down to volume,” he said, adding that more cargo leads to more revenue, and that restricting cargo is “hurting those prospects.”
Commissioner E.J. Zita said she understands that people’s livelihoods depend on the marine terminal, but noted the port is still losing about $2 million a year, even when fracking-related shipments were at a peak in 2014.
“Volume isn’t working for us,” Zita said. “We must find a way to make the marine terminal better.”