Leaders at the Port of Olympia remain split on whether to reimburse the city of Olympia for its response to a protest over the port’s handling of materials used in fracking.
Protesters in November blocked railroad tracks from the the port through downtown for 11 days before police moved in. They left about 15 tons of garbage and graffiti on nearby buildings that had to be removed.
The city’s response to the blockade cost $46,140 in staff time, overtime and cleanup. At a Port Commissioners work session Thursday, City Manager Steve Hall requested the port pay the city $23,885 for overtime and cleanup costs.
“Our position is that is an external cost of the port’s decision to continue to ship controversial cargo,” Hall said, adding the city waited to remove protesters because it was following the lead of Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks.
Port Commissioner E.J. Zita said the port should pay the $23,885. She had asked the city and other agencies that responded to send invoices. Washington State Patrol and the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office both declined, according to Zita.
“We don’t have the infrastructure to keep the public safe when we have controversial cargo…,” Zita said. “We expect the city to provide the infrastructure that we can’t provide ourselves.”
This isn’t the first time the reimbursement issue has been raised. Following protests in 2007 over the port’s handling of military cargo, the port reimbursed the city about $70,000 for law enforcement expenses. The port was later reimbursed the same amount by the federal government.
In 2016, law enforcement agencies removed protesters after a six-day train blockade in downtown Olympia over fracking-related cargo at a cost of about $40,000. The port did not reimburse the agencies in that case.
Port Commissioner Bill McGregor said the port should not be held responsible for illegal behavior on the part of protesters. Commissioner Joe Downing suggested reimbursing the city a few thousand dollars for cleanup but not overtime, saying the port was entitled to police protection.
Commissioners did not make a decision Thursday but will take up the matter at a future meeting.
In 2014, the City Council passed a resolution opposing the port’s handling of fracking materials; it again urged the port to reconsider its handling of the materials following November’s protest. Police Chief Ronnie Roberts also has urged the port to stop accepting the cargo.
But port officials have said on several occasions their hands are tied by federal regulations.
“In this particular case and this particular cargo, you know, Olympia and especially (the) OPD police chief, you know, might be hesitant, you know, to provide services for us, and this is the result,” Downing said.
He later walked back the comment, saying he did not mean to imply the police chief was biased.
McGregor said the port should work with the city, law enforcement, local businesses and the railroads on a plan for the next protest, noting it wasn’t just the city that incurred costs.
“It will happen again, I believe, and we need to be ready to react,” he said.