March 17, 2013, The Olympian
The Port of Olympia knows better than most the difficulties of changing public perception. For most of its 90 years as a port district encompassing all of Thurston County, heavy industrial activity on its property mirrored the resource-based commercial enterprises along the shorelines of East Bay and West Bay.
That’s no longer the case today. As the private sawmills and processing plants have disappeared, along with their smokestacks, the port has been completing a transformation of its own. It has converted log booms to marinas, and industrial sites into clean and attractive spaces for future development and public access to the waterfront.
For many, the image has not yet resonated of an environment-friendly port leading the way on cleaning up East Bay brownfields, removing seeping creosote poles and proactively testing the toxicity of Budd Inlet sediments well beyond its boundaries.
The port’s actions over the past two decades deserve more credit than they have received.
A recent fuel dock proposal reflects how the port is working to fight off its old stereotype as an industrial polluter.
For the roughly 1,600 boat owners who moor their vessels near downtown Olympia, establishing a fuel dock at the Port of Olympia’s Swantown Marina makes perfect sense.
It’s surprising, frankly, that the base of Puget Sound has gone without a convenient source of marine fuel for so long, and Thurston County’s other 10,000 registered boat owners would probably agree.
Critics have expressed concern over a fuel dock’s negative environmental and economic impacts, when, in fact, the opposite is true.
A modern fuel dock with safety features, such as leak detection and a well-trained operator would create a vast environmental improvement over individual boat owners attempting to refuel themselves, inadvertently spilling gas, diesel and oil contaminants into Budd Inlet waters.
On the economic front, the robust Northwest boating community largely bypasses Olympia because boaters routinely plan trips around fuel stops. A well-located fuel dock would bring new visitors to the city, providing tourism revenues to vendors at the farmer’s market, restaurants and marine-related small businesses.
The port is moving forward cautiously and responsibly, considering every possible environmental protection and being sensitive to the impact its fuel dock might have on private businesses, such as the Boston Harbor marina.
It’s the right approach and the kind of due diligence that has led the port to its recent financial success.
Since reporting a loss in 2008, the port posted a $1.7 million profit in 2012 and is on track for the same this year. Airport operations are up 29 percent. The marine terminal is up 8 percent. Lease revenues have increased 5 percent over the prior year, and the marina and boatyard operations are staying flat in an environment where most marinas have seen declines.
The Swantown Marina received a green standard designation from a panel that includes the state Department of Ecology and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The boatyard makes $80 per barrel by reclaiming and recycling the metals contained in bottom-paint scrapings.
Frequent water quality testing and new testing of outfalls into the bay, the planned clean up and dredging of the navigation channel and turning basin, the planned removal of one of two outdated cargo cranes, and a potential fuel dock all point to an entity on the move and balancing public expectations.
Some critics point to the port’s continued levy of property taxes as an indicator of an public entity that returns little to the general public for their dollar. The unspoken public benefit, however, is that the Port has an opportunity to become the leading environmental steward and public agent for clean up and remediation of Budd Inlet.
The Port of Olympia has undergone a steady transformation over the past several years. It now appears well-positioned to meet its legal mandate as the region’s economic development entity.