Give maritime industry a fair hearing on Shell’s oil-rig lease

By Seattle Times editorial board, June 27, 2015, Seattle Times

PEOPLE used to joke about the phallic appearance of the Seattle Municipal Tower, the bureaucrats’ skyscraper at Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street.


Now it’s looking like a middle finger aimed at a maritime industry that’s trying to maintain working-class jobs on the harbor below.



The hearing examiner’s decision on Tuesday amplified this message. Tragically, it may help convince some maritime employers that it’s time to move to another city that will welcome their business and jobs.


The examiner is overseeing a land-use spat over the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5 that was instigated by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

A quick refresher: Upset about the Obama administration’s decision to allow exploratory drilling in the Arctic, and the Port’s lease of its vacant terminal to moor and support Royal Dutch Shell vessels for a few years, Murray and other local politicians took action.


At Murray’s direction, city planners re-examined an old land-use permit for Terminal 5 and decided that it could not be used by the Polar Pioneer drilling rig and its tugboats.


The move did not slow or stop Arctic drilling. It failed to prevent Shell from using the terminal in May and early June — though it complicates return trips. Seattle has the best setup, but the work could also be done in Tacoma or Port Angeles.


This affects more than just Shell. Activity at Terminal 5 generated more than $23 million in revenue for dozens of local companies during the first half of 2015, including more than $5 million in wages for union workers.


The Port of Seattle and Foss Maritime appealed to the Office of the Hearing Examiner, which is supposed to provide an impartial, quasi-judicial process. The hearing is scheduled for July 23.


A coalition of environmental groups asked to participate in the hearing. So did a group of maritime-industry advocates, including a union that works at Terminal 5, a Foss competitor and others.



The examiner agreed on June 5 to let the environmentalists fully participate, cross examining witnesses alongside the city. Environmental groups were deemed to have a substantial interest in the case because they work to protect and restore Puget Sound. The examiner also noted that a creek-monitoring program was impaired by the buffer zone around Shell’s vessels at Terminal 5.


Then last Tuesday, the examiner, Anne Watanabe, denied this same opportunity to the maritime advocates. She decided that their interests are adequately represented by the Port and Foss and prevented them from participating during the hearing.


In making this decision, the examiner sided with the city’s planning department, which opposed the maritime group’s participation but not the environmentalists’.


Coming on top of the city’s extraordinary efforts to scuttle the activity at Terminal 5 — and the me-too attempts by King County and the state Department of Natural Resources to get persnickety about permits — this decision reinforces maritime-industry perceptions that the deck is stacked against it in Seattle.


Given the international attention this fight has drawn, the adverse effect it’s having on Seattle’s viability as a maritime center and concerns that the land-use system is being manipulated to score political points, the city should be going the extra mile to ensure the Terminal 5 hearing at least appears as fair and balanced as possible.


That was not accomplished by limiting the participation of maritime advocates and giving full access to environmentalists.



Protecting and cleaning up Puget Sound is a noble cause that should be fully supported. But in this case, the environmental fight is with the Obama administration over its decision to allow drilling in the Arctic.


The overriding issue before the hearing examiner is not environmental. It is the vulnerability of maritime operations at the Port to selective interpretations of land-use decisions and the uncertainty that creates for companies doing business in Seattle.


Seattle officials insist that they want the maritime industry to remain and thrive in their city. But they have a funny way of showing their support.


Let those most affected by the outcome participate in the hearing.


Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Brier Dudley, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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