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Voting for port commissioner matters!

The Pacific Northwest has become a “choke point”, as activist Katie Rickman says, for the growth of the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. On their website, Audubon Washington provides a comprehensive account of where things stand now in terms of oil transport (, an issue that Works in Progress writers have also been covering regularly.

Sue Gunn’s revelatory tenure as port commissioner

In 2013, Sue Gunn campaigned for port commissioner on a platform that emphasized environmental sustainability and won. In her campaign and her time in office, Gunn made the port’s business relevant to everyone who believes we have to address climate change systemically, through changes in policy.

Meta Hogan, writing for Olympia Power and Light in November 2013, explained Gunn’s successful campaign like this:

“Gunn was encouraged by a group of port critics, unhappy at what they saw as tax subsidies for corporations shipping raw logs and hydraulic fracking materials, among other complaints. Unlike previous candidates who challenged the status quo at the port, Gunn hit on issues that seemed to resonate with the public. Port critics have been accused of wanting to shut down the marine terminal, and thus destroy jobs; Gunn reframed the debate as a choice of a few corporate jobs versus more jobs at local small businesses… Gunn said she would consider environmental and social concerns in port decisions, notably about shipping raw logs and fracking materials.”

Gunn had open-heart surgery in December 2014. In February, Commissioner Bill McGregor set a 60-day clock for Gunn to return or resign, and in March, Gunn, citing both her health and the pressure from her co-commissioner, resigned.

In April, Olympia Power and Light ran a guest editorial by Paul Pickett: “the port lacks a vision and loses its heart.” In it, Picket laments our collective loss:

“Gunn ran on a platform of disaffection and vision. She appealed to environmentalists who were tired of seeing raw logs and propants for fracking shipped through the Port. She appealed to fiscal conservatives who wanted to know what they got from the Port’s property tax. And she appealed to supporters of the Olympia Farmer’s Market, who were angry at Davis for threatening to undercut the Market.

“As a port commissioner, Gunn brought a new vision. She questioned the money the Port was investing in the fossil fuel industry. She questioned the viability of a deep-water Port in a land of contaminated mudflats. She called out the Port for end-running legal requirements, and was proven right. She was not popular with the supporters of status quo at the Port.”

In her campaign and her tenure as a commissioner, Sue Gunn questioned the role of the port and showed Thurston County residents how much we can expect from this public institution. She made the invisible but nonetheless material consequences of the Port’s policies visible.

Taking a stand against fracking

During Gunn’s campaign, she took a principled stand against fracking. As a commissioner, she had to figure out how to put her principles into practice.

In an interview with blogger Steve Klein in March 2014, Gunn explained her strategy for limiting the Port’s support for the fossil fuel industry. She pointed out that interstate commerce laws make it hard or even illegal for the Port to ban a particular kind of cargo. Given that, what the Port can do is work on increasing the volume of environmentally sustainable (carbon-neutral) cargo that goes through it. Gunn acknowledged that wasn’t easy, given the particular type of terminal we have (“breakbulk”), but she commended port staff for vigorously exploring new cargo possibilities tied to clean energy.

We need to elect port commissioners who will forward the work on finding carbon-neutral cargoes, so that port profitability doesn’t come at all of our expense. Fracking is only in the interests of the fossil fuel corporations—not in the public’s interest.

Clean water, Capitol Lake, and the Deschutes River

Port commissioners will be asked to weigh in on the future of Capitol Lake. In 2009, as part of the CLAMP (Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan) process, the port commissioners voted to keep Capitol Lake as a managed lake. Environmental evidence contradicts that position, arguing for a return to an estuary as other WIP writers have pointed out.

The candidates who applied to fill the remainder of Sue Gunn’s term were asked to respond to a supplemental question: what is your opinion on the future of Capitol Lake? Both people running for position #3, Gunn’s position, applied for the interim position, and both responded to the question.

In her response, Zita framed the issue as one of water quality. She pointed out the expense of maintaining the lake and the environmental benefits of returning the lake to an estuary. Acknowledging sharply divergent views about the future of the lake, she proposed that we address water quality first by reducing the pollution (i.e. fixing leaking septic systems) and improving habitat in the upper Deschutes and then turning our attention to the lake.

In his response, Jerry Farmer argued framed the issue as a question of silt. The question, he wrote, was who should pay for the dredging. His response is that the state should pay. Farmer also proposed a potential “compromise”—making the lake more shallow, by creating a berm, and then letting the river flow around it, which sounds like the “dual basin estuary option” (the most expensive option) proposed under CLAMP.

As wild fires rage throughout the Pacific Northwest, we need port commissioners who take the science of environmental restoration seriously.

Serious about the future? Vote!

In her open letter to the voters of Thurston County announcing her resignation, Sue Gunn pointed to her work uncovering faulty logic at work in port decisions—in economic terms and environmental terms. Gunn worked hard, in a principled way.

Voting is a lot easier than running for or serving as a port commissioner. We aren’t very good at it—not even at the city or county level, where our votes really matter.

According to the Office of the Secretary of State website, in the 2014 midterm elections, only 39.5% of the voting age population in WA state actually voted. In the 2012 presidential elections, just 60.7% of the voting age population in WA voted. In the recent primary elections, for port, city council, and school board races, a mere 22% of registered voters in Thurston County voted—and that percentage would be even lower if it were based on the voting age population in the county.

We’ve got to do better. Fracking poisons groundwater and releases methane gas. Hotter summers mean warmer water and lower stream flow volume, endangering salmon and people. We need our public institutions to be front-runners in promoting policies that build on the best information we have about how to avert leaving the next generations with a total catastrophe. Most of us won’t run for office, but most of us can and should vote. This next port election matters. Pay attention!

Emily Lardner lives in Olympia, where she teaches and writes.


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