For Port of Olympia, controversial cargo and protests are part of doing business

Protesters leave a message in chalk on the pavement early Nov. 18 after law enforcement officers broke up the Port of Olympia protest camp in downtown Olympia.
Protesters leave a message in chalk on the pavement early Nov. 18 after law enforcement officers broke up the Port of Olympia protest camp in downtown Olympia. toverman@theolympian.com

At the climax of a weeklong demonstration against the Port of Olympia, protesters jumped in front of semitrailers and blocked the road with boxes and garbage bins. Olympia police wore riot gear and pepper-sprayed protesters before dragging them off the road and allowing the controversial cargo to pass. At least a dozen protesters were arrested.

Protesters criticized police tactics, with one participant saying that police “came in beating people up.” One college student said, “I knew what I was doing was going to get me arrested or attacked with chemical weapons or batons.” Olympia police said they tried to talk with the demonstrators and get them to leave peacefully, but ended up forcibly removing the protesters as a last resort.

Sound familiar? This event took place Nov. 11, 2007 — but it is eerily similar to last month’s clash between police and protesters who blocked train tracks Nov. 11-18 in downtown Olympia.

The difference between the 2007 and 2016 protests comes down to cargo. In 2007, a group called Olympia Port Militarization Resistance was protesting the shipment of military cargo that was used in Iraq.

This time around, the uprising is focused on hydraulic fracturing, a process more commonly called fracking. For four years and counting, the Port of Olympia has been accepting shipments of ceramic-coated sand or “proppants” that help extract oil from deep underground in North Dakota.

Critics of fracking say the process contaminates water supplies, contributes to climate change and keeps the country dependent on fossil fuels. Last month’s protest in Olympia also was a local response to the recent Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrations at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

Although fracking-related cargo provided $1.5 million for the port in 2012, shipments have since dwindled as the price of oil has fallen and fracking has waned. The shipment from China that sparked last month’s protest was the port’s third fracking cargo shipment since 2015.

A group of Olympia protesters has camped out on the rail line that serves the Port of Olympia to stop the transportation of ceramic proppants, also known as fracking sand, to North Dakota.

But for the Port of Olympia and its dock workers, cargo is cargo — and cargo means jobs. Whether the cargo consists of timber, military supplies or even Vietnam-bound dairy cattle, the port has long been a lightning rod for activists.

“Our job is to move cargo,” said Robert Rose, secretary-treasurer and business agent for the 33-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 47. “There’s always something that someone doesn’t like.”

Rose, an Olympia native who has worked at the port for 38 years, said cargo restrictions are a “slippery slope” that can affect the livelihoods of longshoremen who work in a cyclical industry and don’t get to pick the cargo they unload. Rose said dock workers have been unfairly portrayed by activists as anti-environment.

“My members are as sensitive to environmental concerns as anybody,” he told The Olympian. “But they still have a job to do. People are concerned about being able to make a living.”

Local opposition to fracking-related cargo goes beyond the protests. In 2014, the Olympia City Council passed a resolution that outlined its stance against “oil train traffic” and asked the Port of Olympia to “reconsider its role” in handling fracking-related materials.

Last month, Police Chief Ronnie Roberts called on the Port to align with “the community values we hold so dear” in a public rebuke three days after law enforcement cleared the protest camp that was illegally blocking a train from leaving with fracking materials. Police used nonlethal flash grenades and pepper-balls on the protesters, and 12 people were arrested.

Speaking to the Olympia City Council, Roberts denounced the port for putting the community and his officers at risk by accepting cargo that incites protests.

“I implore the port to look for options and solutions that are compatible with our community values, which have been clearly stated by the council,” Roberts said Nov. 22.

About 250 people gathered at Olympia’s Port Plaza on Saturday to protest the Port of Olympia receiving shipments of fracking sands.

Roberts declined The Olympian’s request for further comment on his statement, which drew a heated response from Port of Olympia Executive Director Ed Galligan at the Dec. 6 City Council meeting. Galligan said port staff interpreted the chief’s comments as “blaming them for criminal activities that required intervention.”

The port cannot discriminate against shipments of legal cargo, said Galligan, who cited interstate commerce regulations as well as the U.S. Shipping Act of 1984. The Port of Olympia has the infrastructure to handle a range of cargo including fracking sands. As long as that infrastructure is in place, he said, the port is required to ship fracking cargo until the law states otherwise.

Galligan contends that all cargo has the potential to attract protests, and that’s simply part of doing business at the Port. His goal is to ensure the Port, city and police department maintain a positive partnership.

“We’re going to move on and continue building strong relationships that I really appreciate and have honored for the past 11 years,” he told The Olympian. “People have the right to express their First Amendment rights. The issue is when they’re going to start breaking the law.”

Port of Olympia Commissioner E.J. Zita said the community deserves a public discussion about the City Council’s resolution that asked the port to stop handling fracking cargo. Zita had proposed such a discussion at a contentious Nov. 28 commissioners meeting before her fellow commissioners vetoed the agenda item.

“We owe it to the city to consider their resolution,” Zita said, noting the polarizing nature of fracking shipments. “The port commissioners have a responsibility to discuss this issue and decide what cargo we ship.”

The Port Commission’s meeting agenda for Monday night includes a resolution regarding cargo at the Port of Olympia. A draft of the resolution states the port will comply with all laws regarding trade and commerce, and “will accept and handle any and all cargoes that are safe, legal, and otherwise meet Port of Olympia marine terminal tariff standards as well as permit standards.”

The protesters' camp blocking the railway from Port of Olympia were cleared from the tracks by police shortly before dawn on Friday morning. The train carrying ceramic proppant materials left the Port of Olympia under a police escort.

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby addressed the recent protests over cargo shipments at the Dec. 6 City Council meeting, stating the council’s position on fracking cargo and environmental stewardship and its support for the public’s right to peacefully protest. A solution at the local level, she said, requires policy reform and discussion at the national level.

“Like most complex issues, there’s rarely an easy answer. It’s not so simple as a single rail track or a single pipeline,” said Selby, noting a desire to keep working with the port. “They’re still important strategic partners, and our relationship is bigger than a single issue.”

In the meantime, residents continue to express their views over the port’s fracking cargo as well as Chief Roberts’ comments about the protests.

“To ask the Port of Olympia to discriminate against legal cargo, whether it is fracking sand or military equipment, is to ask the port to violate applicable law,” said Olympia resident Claudia Cuykendall, adding that the debate needs to take place before federal elected representatives. “The port cannot choose which cargo to handle any more than Chief Roberts can choose which members of the community to protect.”

At the same council meeting, Olympia resident William Fleming said he is happy that Roberts expressed his feelings about the protest but is saddened that port leadership has failed to replace fracking cargo with “something else acceptable for our community to actually make money with.”

“It’s a bit like living in fairy tale land,” he said, “to imagine that people would not be upset with your actions, given what’s going on.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869, @andyhobbs