City, port need new approach to protests

Olympia and the Port of Olympia need a better way to handle political protests — especially over shipments of oil-industry materials through downtown Olympia.

Ultimately Union Pacific Railroad police cleared the blockaded rail line last month, but not before 120 to 130 officers were called in from UP Railroad, the Olympia Police Department, neighboring jurisdictions, the State Patrol, and even a Tacoma response team.

Earlier and stronger police intervention may be needed to defuse future protests before so many police are needed to ensure order. The city should also consider seeking criminal charges against those who, in the name of environmental protection, thwarted local commerce and left 15 tons of trash in their wake.

Olympia Police Chief Roberts told The Olympian Editorial Board this week that the blockaded railroad tracks — which have been used in the past to ship “fracking” sands used for oil and gas extraction in the Midwest — grew faster and larger than previous protests. Roberts said a lot of staff work was needed to coordinate responses and make sure the situation could be defused safely. City costs are estimated at about $40,000.

Though some protesters claimed to be protesting the port’s shipment of oil-extraction sands, there is no evidence that fracking sands were actually being transported during the protest along tracks that run from the port through downtown Olympia.

Instead local businesses that rely on other products shipped through the port — such as corn syrup for soft drinks — were needlessly affected by a disruption of their supplies.

The Squaxin Island Tribe also criticized protesters in a letter sent to the Port Commission and City Council. In it, tribal chairman Arnold Cooper said the tribe was in no way affiliated with Olympia Stand, one of the protest groups that claimed to be defending tribes’ ancestral lands. Cooper added that the tribe “does not associate with advocacy groups that use force, intimidation, or cause damage to personal or public property.”

Cooper also said the tribe does not support blocking the tracks.

We’ve said before that the port should continue to ship legal cargoes that are environmentally safe to ship, and that the port and community should hold broader discussions about how to reduce fossil fuel use locally.

That is still the case, because neither the port nor railroad can legally reject certain cargoes because they are not politically popular.

It is an altogether different discussion, of course, to determine whether our public port is earning enough from fracking shipments to cover its costs. The port should make a full public accounting of that.

Though protesters were not interested in those fine points, most people in South Sound should distinguish between the protesters’ defiant acts from the serious U.S. movement to take action against climate change. Our nation needs to put a market price on carbon pollutants and support broader use of sustainable energy.