The tracks are clear, but there’s no resolution to Olympia’s fracking-related problem

Crews worked to clear the railroad tracks on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017 after police removed protesters.
Crews worked to clear the railroad tracks on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017 after police removed protesters. sbloom@theolympian.com

The downtown Olympia railroad tracks that had been blocked by protesters since Nov. 17 are clear. But there’s no solution to the core problem: The Port of Olympia continues to accept shipments of fracking materials, and a group of protesters is willing to stand in their way.

Members of Olympia Stand have organized two blockades of the downtown railroad tracks in two years. Twice they have been removed by police.

Olympia City Council members want the port to stop accepting shipments of fracking materials, but Port of Olympia officials say they’re required by federal law and by a contract to continue the practice. Olympia & Belmore, the company that manages the rail line, blames local officials for allowing the protest to continue for so long.

“We are extremely disappointed by the inaction of local officials that allowed this illegal and dangerous situation to persist for 11 days. There are ramifications here that go beyond the movement of ceramic proppants, by itself a harmless commodity, through the Port of Olympia,” reads a statement from the company.

Anti-fracking protesters faced off with dozens of police in tactical gear during a predawn raid Wednesday on an encampment blocking railroad tracks in downtown Olympia.

The conflict between the port and the city council escalated Tuesday night — the night before Union Pacific Railroad police arrived to remove protesters from the tracks in downtown Olympia. Port Commissioner E.J. Zita attended the city council meeting, and urged the council to work with port officials and the protesters to reach a peaceful resolution.

Her statement was met with frustration from Council members Jessica Bateman and Jeannine Roe. They argued that only Port of Olympia officials could end the practice of importing ceramic proppants, or fracking sand, through Olympia.

Both said that the product — which is used in the oil and natural gas extraction process — goes against the beliefs of Olympia residents and their elected officials.

“If you continue to have fracking sands coming into the port, then there will continue to be protests,” Roe said.

But the ports hands are tied by federal regulations — specifically the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Tariff and Trade Act of 1984 — said port spokeswoman Jennie Foglia-Jones on Wednesday. The port also must honor its contract with Rainbow Ceramics, the company that ships the ceramic proppants.

“We can’t really pick and choose the cargo if we have the facilities and equipment to handle it,” Foglia-Jones said.

She said there are currently ceramic proppants sitting on Port of Olympia property, but there are no immediate plans to ship them.

City officials expressed concern Tuesday about the economic hardship that the blockade was placing on local businesses that were unable to receive needed supplies. Bateman said one company was close to laying off employees because of the protest.

“Those are local jobs for local people that are (paying) living wages,” Bateman said. “And we’ve received numerous emails from those local business owners that said they could potentially lay people off because they’re not getting the products.”

Meanwhile, some protesters are calling the blockade a success, despite it being dismantled Wednesday morning. The protest was organized by a coalition called Olympia Stand. One of its members, who declined to give her real name, said Wednesday that the group would continue to pressure city and port leaders on the fracking sand issue.

She said that Olympia Stand accomplished its mission of raising awareness about the issue.

City Manager Steve Hall said Tuesday night that any decision to remove protesters from the tracks would be made by railroad officials. The Olympia Police Department would be present to manage the aftermath on city streets, he said.

Following the removal of last year’s blockade — on Nov. 18, 2016 — protesters set fire to recycling bins, threw kegs and blocked traffic. The Olympia Police Department intervened with non-lethal tactics, such as flash bangs and pepper balls. Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts issued a public rebuke to the Port of Olympia less than a week later.

“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.”

Reporter Abby Spegman contributed to this report.

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly