More than 500 people testified last fall at two public hearings about crude oil terminals proposed at the Port of Grays Harbor. More than 90,000 submitted written comments on a draft environmental study, the vast majority calling on local and state officials to deny permits for the terminals. They pose too many risks and costs to our communities, the health and safety of our families and our regional economy.
The overwhelming concern of area residents during the public comment period was echoed clearly in a recent poll, commissioned by the Quinault Indian Nation, which found 57 percent of Grays Harbor County voters oppose plans to transport by rail, store and ship crude oil to West Coast and overseas refineries. The telephone survey of 402 likely Republican, Democrat and independent Grays Harbor County voters was conducted in December 2015.
Among the top concerns of survey respondents were the potential negative impacts on traffic, the health of fish and wildlife in Grays Harbor, and water quality in local rivers, streams and our coastal shores. We share local residents’ concerns about oil trains, tankers and barges that would pose an ever present risk of oil spills, elevate vessel traffic safety risk and impede access to fishing grounds for both tribal and non-tribal fishers.
No crude oil currently moves through Grays Harbor. If built, proposed terminals would mean regular transits of oil-filled vessels crossing the rough bar between the harbor and the ocean. Imagine oil tankers three football fields in length navigating the narrow, shallow shipping channel through the harbor.
Not surprisingly, the poll also indicated county residents are extremely concerned about the struggling local economy. Our communities need economic development. We need to do more with our waterfront. But choosing crude oil terminals could close off other development options, like plans to make Aberdeen’s waterfront a more desirable place to work and play and an attractive stop for the millions of visitors who come through on their way to the spectacular Olympic coast.
A better path than crude oil would build on our strengths like commercial fisheries and tourism. Grays Harbor and surrounding waters support nearly 700 tribal and more than 3,000 non-tribal commercial fishing jobs. A study last month by the Greater Grays Harbor Chamber of Commerce found nearly 6,000 tourism-related jobs in the county, accounting for one in four non-farm industry jobs in the region and ranking us sixth out of Washington’s 39 counties for tourism.
Grays Harbor is essential habitat for shellfish, including oysters and razor clams, fish such as salmon, steelhead and sturgeon and is a major nursery ground for Dungeness crab. Scenic beauty, clean beaches, birds and wildlife, and recreation opportunities are central to our local quality of life and the lifeblood of our tourism economy. We should focus on keeping Grays Harbor and the Washington coast safe and productive, not putting them at risk from oil trains, tankers and barges.
In the coming months, state and local leaders are expected to approve or deny permits for proposed crude oil terminals. As they continue to weigh their decision, we hope they will come to the same conclusion we have, that on balance any modest economic benefits we may get from the terminals are far outweighed by the many risks and costs. We can do better than crude oil. Let’s work to build our economy in ways that are consistent with the views of a majority of county residents and the sustainable industries we already have in place and can build on.
Fawn R. Sharp is President of the Quinault Indian Nation
Larry Thevik is Vice-president of Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association