Q&A: Arnie Martin, Grays Harbor Audubon Society

Arnie Martin, a native Oregonian, and his wife, Jude Armstrong, moved to Hoquiam in August 2005 after retirement from the Massachuetts company that employed him for more than 37 years. The couple found the Harbor had the best of what they loved about the Northwest.

“We had agreed that we would move back to the Pacific Northwest after I retired, and I had visited the Harbor area several times,” said Martin, the current president of Grays Harbor Audubon Society, who helped form the group Citizens for a Clean Harbor. “The Aberdeen/Hoquiam area met the criteria we had set: close to the ocean, close to a wildlife refuge, public transportation, good grocery stores and an Audubon Society chapter.”

How and when did you first become interested in Audubon and what compelled you to join?

I spent my earliest years on a small farm in the Willamette Valley, and my grandmother told me the names of the birds and animals we saw there. Later, when I was in elementary school, the National Audubon Society had a program for students that sent out descriptive “bird stamps” that were to be pasted into an album, and I found the different types of birds from other parts of the country interesting. Years later, after college, I saw a notice that the Corvallis Audubon Society was having a field trip to a local National Wildlife Refuge, and I signed up for the trip. On that trip we were lucky enough to see a rare species of duck, European (common) teal, and that rarity hooked me on birding. Now that species has been lumped in with green-winged teal, so I can’t even count it on my life list of birds. I later volunteered as a board member, then became vice-president and president of Corvallis Audubon Society in the middle 1970s.

As president of the local Audubon chapter, describe some of your duties and responsibilities?

When I joined the Grays Harbor Audubon Society I was surprised at the number of conservation properties that the group owned. The group had a very active habitat committee which had obtained grants to protect local properties for use as wildlife habitat. After serving on the chapter’s board of directors, and as vice-president, I was elected as chapter president. I am responsible for the meeting agendas, suggesting board member and committee appointments, and am the usual person who attends the Washington State Audubon meetings. Our local society holds bi-monthly public meetings, with the next one Feb. 3 (today) at the Hoquiam Library meeting room (1:30 p.m.). Also the chapter president has the task of writing the “President’s Perch” article for the chapter’s Sandpiper Newsletter, which, thanks to the fossil fuel shipping/export proposals, has made it much easier to choose the topic during the last 18 months.

How did you come to be involved with Citizens for a Clean Harbor and is the group still active?

The company that wanted to build a coal export facility at the Port of Grays Harbor Terminal 3, RailAmerica, held an informational meeting in August 2011. At that meeting they disclosed their intention to ship coal from Wyoming and Montana and build a coal export terminal on the Port property. The terminal would have been a threat to the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge which is across the street. The refuge is irreplaceable and has been determined to be a site of hemispheric importance for the migration of shorebirds from their wintering grounds in Central and South America to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.

Along with other environmental groups, we decided that we should find out what the construction of such a terminal would bring, and what the consequences might be: specifically for the refuge and the Harbor in general. It didn’t take much searching to determine that some of the largest problems would be fugitive coal dust from shipping in open railcars and from wind blowing on storage piles, potential coal fires and massive amounts of CO2 emissions from the Asian power generation plants that would be the recipients of the exported coal.

All the environmental attendees of the meeting agreed that forming a group to oppose the coal exports was required – Citizens for a Clean Harbor. After about a year of our holding informational meetings for the Grays Harbor residents, RailAmerica decided that the railroad would make more money if another fossil fuel, crude oil, came down the tracks, and “shelved their plans for coal.” Unfortunately, there are now plans being developed for exporting crude oil by rail not only from Terminal 3, but also from the Westway and Imperium facilities at the Port’s property just off Port Industrial Way. The plans will keep the Citizens for a Clean Harbor busy for the foreseeable future.

What are your chief concerns about the recent proposals to ship crude oil through the Port of Grays Harbor?

While the coal shipments would create unavoidable dust losses from open-top railcars and wind effects on the storage piles, the crude oil shipment by rail, receiving, storage and loading of crude oil on ships or barges may seem to avoid spills except in the case of accidents. I worry that due to equipment failure, operator error, ship grounding or earthquake there will be an oil spill and potentially a very large one. Any major oil spill would have the possibility of destroying the Harbor’s salmon and crab fisheries and oyster culture. Even a relatively small spill could irreparably damage the shorebird habitat at the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. The size of each of the proposed storage tanks (80,000 to 500,000 barrels = 3.36 to 21 million gallons) rival the largest that I’ve seen at refineries on the Gulf Coast, and the tanks will be constructed with their base elevations lower than 20 feet above mean sea level. A magnitude 8 to 9 earthquake could generate a tsunami higher than 20 feet, threatening tank foundations and sidewalls.

While the coal export people planned to bring in one unit train (about 120 railcars) a day, the US Development oil terminal plans on bringing in two unit trains per day. So far, the plans for the number of trains per week for the Westway and Imperium terminals are not certain, but may be one unit train every three days for each terminal. This would give total number of 1 1/2-mile long trains both to, and from, all the terminals of about 23 train passages per week. At the current 5 mph train speed over the Wishkah and Hoquiam river rail bridges, the at-grade rail crossings would be blocked for 18 minutes per train, or 7 hours per week. The road blockages at Port Industrial Way may be an additional 3 times per day for each of the Westway and Imperium terminals.

Although the proponents insist that the most stringent precautions will be followed to prevent crude oil vapors from escaping, there will be some vapors emitted during crude oil checking and tank venting or cleaning. Having spent a short (2 day) period in Williston, N.D. I can tell you the smell of North Dakota crude oil is not a pleasant one. Having the tank cars for the US Development site being unloaded within a couple of thousand feet of the Hoquiam High School athletic fields also worries me about any students that may have breathing difficulties, such as asthma.

As somewhat of a citizen watchdog, what advice do you give others with similar interest in how local governments perform?

Citizens should learn as much as they can about project plans, about what the priorities of the local governments are, and who are the proponents and opponents of any project. Of course, the local, state and federal regulations must be strictly followed, and the regulators may occasionally need to be reminded of them. When a citizen sees their leaders not being concerned enough to the things that are important to everyone. The desires of the local governments and the need for additional employment need to be balanced with the need for protection of the environment. With the long-term neglect of the consequences of burning fossil fuels we need to advocate for the wise use of our remaining coal and oil and to lobby our governments to accelerate the conversion to renewable resources.

What are some of the longterm plans or proposals for improvements in the Grays Harbor Wildlife Refuge, and what other areas need to be better protected?

The refuge personnel are in the process of updating their Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), but I haven’t seen the proposed changes to the plan. There will be a public meeting on the revised HCP later this spring, which I urge everyone to attend. Long-range plans include construction of a Nature/Education Center on the refuge alongside Paulson Road, with the site separated from the proposed tank car switching site only by a chain link fence and the two lane roadway.

We did a survey this winter which is the start of a multi-year effort to determine the number and types of shorebirds in many areas on the Harbor all at one time. The results over several years of these counts will be used to identify the areas the birds frequent, and at which tidal states, so those additional areas can be proposed for future protection. The entire Chehalis estuary and the tidal reaches of its rivers must be protected from potential oil spills.

Where are some of your favorite places in Grays Harbor to visit? Any favorite birds?

I have to admit my favorite place is the obvious one, the Grays Harbor NWR, where I particularly enjoy seeing the falcons and eagles stirring the masses of shorebirds in swirling clouds. Other favorite places are the Westport Marina, the jetty and Damon Point in Ocean Shores, and the Tokeland marina (even though it’s on Willapa Bay). My favorite birds, besides the ones just outside my window, are the black-bellied plovers in breeding plumage, the marbled godwits in Tokeland and Westport, and the peregrine falcons at the NWR.