Police chief blasts Port of Olympia for allowing fracking-related shipments

Olympia police respond to a garbage fire set by protesters on Jefferson Street in downtown Olympia early on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016.
Olympia police respond to a garbage fire set by protesters on Jefferson Street in downtown Olympia early on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. toverman@theolympian.com

Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts issued a public rebuke to the Port of Olympia on Tuesday night, less than a week after police removed protesters who had blocked train tracks for a week in downtown Olympia.

Protesters set up camp Nov. 11 to stop a train from leaving the port with ceramic proppants that are used in oil fracking, as well as to demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

Police in riot gear cleared the camp from the tracks Nov. 18, and 12 people were arrested. Some protesters marched through downtown Olympia, dumping trash and blocking roads, according to police, who used nonlethal flash grenades and “pepper balls.”

At Tuesday’s Olympia City Council meeting, Roberts urged the port to find alternatives to accepting fracking-related cargo. He accused the Port of Olympia of clashing with community values while undermining the public’s trust in law enforcement.

“I don’t want my department to be the scapegoat for the decisions the port is making,” Roberts said. “They have choices and options, should they choose to use them, to eliminate proppants coming to the port. Continued shipments will only erode more trust and put more people and businesses in our community at risk.

“I have spent the last five years empowering our department to build trust and build relationships with our community. I don’t want to lose those efforts. It angers me to have to put our officers in combat gear and face off with members in our community over something I don’t believe in myself.”

But Keith Bausch, former president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 47, said the chief’s comments were out of line when considering the people whose livelihoods depend on shipments at the port.

Bausch, who was joined by several longshoremen Tuesday, urged the council to establish a protocol that will prevent future protests from getting out of hand and blocking the railroad tracks. He said the protesters harmed other businesses that aren’t involved with fracking materials, but still depend on port shipments, such as the L&E Bottling Co.

“We don’t choose the cargo,” Bausch told The Olympian. “If we stay silent, it doesn’t do us any good.”

City Manager Steve Hall said last Friday’s confrontation between police and protesters has generated false reports of injuries related to clearing the camp. He said there was “a lot of aggression and objectionable language toward police” and that he personally didn’t “observe any scuffling during the arrests.”

“The main objective was to get the rail lines clear,” Hall said Tuesday, adding that Olympia police provided opportunities for the protesters to leave. “If the tracks are blocked, the city will do everything it can to avoid using law enforcement.”

Some people had a different view of the confrontation and said police were dragging protesters and delivering hard jabs with batons.

Olympia resident Chris van Daalen said he formed the Affinity Group in response to Friday’s events as a way to promote positive dialogue and connections in the community. He said protesters were unfairly met with a “militarized police force” while peacefully “expressing their First Amendment protected rights.”

“What happened Friday morning made everyone unsafe,” he told the council Tuesday. “There is going to be more of this with the changes in the political climate.”

The Olympia City Council already has taken a public stance against the shipment of fracking materials.

In 2014, the council passed a resolution that outlined its opposition to “oil train traffic” and asked the Port of Olympia “to reconsider its role in the import and transport of materials which are used for hydraulic fracturing. These materials contribute to the movement of dangerous oil trains through our communities, the potential development of oil export terminals on our fragile coastline, the increased burning of fossil-based carbon fuels, and the worsening of the climate crisis.”