Railroad company urges Olympia police to take action against protesters

The president of a local railroad company, affected by an encampment of protesters on tracks it uses, has sent a letter to Mayor Cheryl Selby and Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts, urging that police take action against the protesters.

Since Friday, the group has occupied a section of railroad tracks at Jefferson Street and Seventh Avenue Southeast to protest fracking sand cargo handled by the Port of Olympia. Port officials have said there is no rail shipment of such cargo scheduled.

“This letter is a formal request for the Olympia Police Department to once again take an active role in the removal of trespassers on the rail line into the Port of Olympia, as requested by the owner of the property, Union Pacific,” writes J. Bradley Ovitt, president of the Olympia & Belmore railroad. “Over the last several days, trespassers have occupied this active rail line and ignored requests by railroad employees to leave the site.”

Among Ovitt’s concerns: The unsafe environment created by the protesters, the restraint of interstate commerce, and what he called “growing financial hardship.”

“As a result of our inability to provide freight services to the port and Tumwater, a number of customers have indicated that their facilities will be idled within a few days if service is not restored,” Ovitt writes.

Jerry Vest, senior vice president of government and industry affairs for Genesee & Wyoming — the parent company of Olympia & Belmore — said that sweetener, for example, can’t be delivered to Pepsi Northwest Beverages in Tumwater. He believes the business employs about 200 and could soon shed some of those jobs if the blockade continues.

A spokesperson for Pepsi could not be reached.

Vest said one of the company’s train engines also is stuck on port property and can’t be used until the protest comes to an end.

Vest said not only is the blockade illegal and interfering with interstate commerce, but it “affects people that have nothing to do with the protest.”

So far the city of Olympia has shown little interest in getting involved.

City Manager Steve Hall said Monday he hopes the port and railroad officials will resolve the issue. “This feels like a repeat of last year, and nobody wants to go through what happened last year,” Hall said.

“Their beef is really with the port, not with the city,” he said.

Last year, anti-fracking protesters set up a similar blockade on the tracks at the same location. Fracking sand, also known as ceramic proppants, has been handled by the port since 2012. Initially the fracking sand was going to North Dakota, but port spokeswoman Jennie Foglia-Jones said Wednesday that recent shipments have been delivered to Wyoming. The product is used to “prop up” the earth to aid in oil and natural gas exploration.

The port commission met Tuesday but did not mention the blockade during a budget-focused gathering.

Some protesters attended Tuesday night’s Olympia City Council meeting.

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby made a statement regarding the blockade at the beginning of the meeting. She urged the railroad and the Port of Olympia to resolve the situation peacefully.

But, she said, the community needs to prepare for the possibility that it won’t end that way.

“Initial interactions with black-masked protesters at the blockade became quickly confrontational,” Selby said.

“There is reason to suspect that the blockade protesters are neither interested in negotiating nor in an amicable resolution that would result in removing the blockade without force.”

A protester who signed in with the name Franz spoke during the meeting's public comment period, and read the protesters’ list of demands.

The demands, also sent to The Olympian in a press release, are for:

▪ The Port of Olympia to cease all fossil fuel and military infrastructure shipments.

▪ Democratic control of the Port of Olympia by the community as a whole.

▪ A just transition for port and rail workers to good, green jobs, and for the economy of Thurston County as a whole to transition to a cooperative, fair and sustainable economy.

Franz asked the City Council not to order another violent attack on protesters, referencing police involvement in removing last year’s blockade.

Reed Wing also spoke during public comment. He pulled a fluorescent green hat over his face and identified himself as a Martian sent to Earth to speak out in favor of the blockade.

“I come from the representative of the United Federation of Mars, an ecological and utopian society where we have abolished fossil fuels, police, and the exploitation of one Martian by another,” Wing said.

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly