The Port of Olympia commission invited protesters who have blocked railroad tracks in downtown Olympia and representatives from the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office to address them Monday night, hoping to start a dialogue that might lead to a peaceful resolution of a blockade that started Nov. 17.
Protesters returned to a railroad site they occupied last year at Jefferson Street and Seventh Avenue Southeast. The protesters have gathered largely to protest the port’s handling of ceramic proppants, or fracking sand, which is used in the oil and natural gas extraction process.
Although the commission was supportive of more dialogue during the long and sometimes testy meeting, it wasn’t clear how that might end the blockade. Commissioner Bill McGregor suggested the commission continue the discussion at a commission work session, and Commissioner E.J. Zita agreed. They tentatively scheduled a meeting for Wednesday.
“We can’t make any promises other than to continue and maintain the dialogue,” Commissioner Joe Downing said.
Monday’s meeting was standing-room only and most who spoke were critical of the port’s fracking sand cargo and supportive of those participating in the blockade.
“I’m here to support the young people,” said Bourtai Hargrove of Olympia. “The port is aiding and abetting the big oil companies to continue the fracking they know is destroying our livable climate.”
The port has handled fracking sand since 2012. Business was brisk during the boom in oil prices, but slowed when prices fell. Port officials have said they currently are unaffected by the blockade because there’s no plan to move fracking sand by rail, despite the fact that product can be seen at the marine terminal. The port used to send the product to North Dakota, but recent shipments have gone to Wyoming.
The last fracking sand ship to call on the port was in September 2016. Trucks delivered some fracking sand to the port earlier this year.
Although the port is unaffected, McGregor reminded those at the meeting that the blockade is keeping a locomotive operated by the Olympia & Belmore railroad company from making deliveries to businesses at Mottman Industrial Park in Tumwater. Last week, the president of the company wrote a letter to Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby and Police Chief Ronnie Roberts, urging them to take action.
“It’s unfortunate other companies in this community are being impacted,” McGregor said.
Jerry Vest, senior vice president of government and industry affairs for Genesee & Wyoming — the parent company of Olympia & Belmore — told The Olympian last week that sweetener, for example, can’t be delivered to Pepsi Northwest Beverages in Tumwater. He believes the business employs about 200 and could end up laying people off if the blockade continues.
About a half-dozen of those participating in the blockade also spoke Monday, including a woman who identified herself as Emma.
“The eight-hour work day, no child labor, high-paying jobs was all paid for with lives and direct action, and if you oppose that we shouldn’t be there because it is too much direct action, then I’d like to remind everybody that throughout history, writing letters doesn’t really get you anywhere,” she said.
Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza called on the protesters to communicate with him like they are with the port commission. Sheriff’s deputies were involved in breaking up last year’s blockade.
“I’m asking the people of the blockade to sit down and talk with us,” he told the audience. “Make the point of your cause so we can understand and come to an agreement without people being hurt or harmed.”
Zita said “public safety should be our highest priority.” She also referenced how last year’s protest came to an end.
“People got hurt, it cost our local law enforcement money and it damaged the port’s relationship with the city and public,” she said. “We have an opportunity to do better ... to listen to people, to work with the city and to work with Olympia police and the public.”
McGregor thanked those in attendance for speaking, but he also said he supports the rule of law.
“We all have to abide by the rules put before us, and there are some rules that are being broken,” he said about the blockade. “I take this very seriously. If we don’t have laws and we don’t have order, it impacts everyone’s lives.”
McGregor, too, took issue with some information he had found on social media about the blockade, including a podcast he said he listened to in which members of the blockade said they were having a fun time, eating pizza and planning a dance.
“I hope you would take it more seriously — we do,” he said.
But those in the audience shot back that they take their cause seriously.