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John Spellman's rendezvous with Puget Sound's destiny

A new biography details a remarkable story of how plans to put an oil pipeline under Puget Sound ran into an unlikely antagonist, a mild-mannered Republican determined to follow the law and protect the Sound.
Spellman at his desk

Spellman at his desk Credit: Dick Baldwin

John Spellman, Washington's last Republican governor, 1980-84.

John Spellman, Washington's last Republican governor, 1980-84. Washington State Archives

Editor’s note: The following article is the first part of an excerpt from a new biography by John C. Hughes, “John Spellman: Politics Never Broke His Heart.” It recounts a story, relevant today in the controversy over coal ports on Puget Sound, of an abortive effort to build the Northern Tier Pipeline for shipping Alaska crude oil to the Midwest.

Tankers from Alaska would have called on Port Angeles, where a pipeline would have been built under Puget Sound, along the Snoqualmie River, across the Cascades and then 1,500 miles to Minnesota. The proposal put huge political pressure on Spellman, who was governor from 1980-84.

Prior to that, Spellman, a liberal Republican, was the first King County Executive, as King County government shifted from the "courthouse gang" days to modern government. He defeated Jim McDermott, in 1980, after losing to Dixy Lee Ray in 1976, and was in turn bounced from office in 1984 by Booth Gardner, a moderate Democrat. Spellman paid the price for raising taxes and defying special interests in a tumultuous term marked by a serious recession and a hard-right Republican Party, rising to sweep away moderates like Spellman. This excerpt recounts one of his most celebrated examples of principled courage.This first part lays the groundwork for Spellman's wrenching decision.

Author John C. Hughes worked for 42 years at the Aberdeen Daily World, retiring as editor/publisher and then becoming the state’s chief oral historian in the Office of the Secretary of State. His previous books include biographies of Slade Gorton and Booth Gardner. The Spellman book is available for purchase for $35 plus tax and shipping at the Secretary of State's website,  and will soon be available on Amazon and as an e-book.

“No outraged Chinese governor could stop the Emperor from building the Great Wall. Nor did a Roman senator thwart the Appian Way, nor a Russian prince prevent the Trans-Siberian Railroad. But today one of the nation’s mightiest public-works projects, the $2.7 billion, 1,490-mile Northern Tier Pipeline designed to carry Alaskan crude oil from Puget Sound to Midwestern refineries, is being blocked by a single man, Governor John Spellman of Washington.”

That was the opening paragraph of People magazine’s April 1982 profile of the little-known Western politician who was “bucking president and party to turn an oil pipeline into a pipe dream.”

After five years of hearings that produced 40,000 pages of testimony, the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council on January 27, 1982, voted decisively to deny permits for an oil port at Port Angeles and a pipeline beneath the Sound. The final decision would be Spellman’s alone.

Over the next 71 days, he was subjected to unrelenting pressure — from the corridors of the White House to union halls in Bellingham, Boise, and Bismarck; from farmers and fishermen, iron workers, and environmentalists; from fellow governors, party leaders, and legislators, school children and senior citizens. The Governor’s Office received 7,500 letters he would not read. Nor would he meet with placard-waving Green­peace members or the pipeline supporters who staged a sit-in. All told, it was what the Seattle Times called “perhaps the most imposing array of public and private interests ever to try to twist the arm of a Washington governor.”  

The Site Evaluation Council’s decision boiled down to two major con­cerns. The first was the stability of 22 miles of pipeline below Puget Sound between the Olympic Peninsula and Skagit County. Northern Tier’s studies of the underwater terrain at depths up to 380 feet were deemed inadequate. The second concern was the risk of a disastrous tanker fire or explosion in Port Angeles harbor. Northern Tier and its supporters said the council was ignoring recent information from the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Informed earlier that his consultants had missed key areas of the sea­bed along the proposed route when they drilled for core samples, Cortlandt Dietler, the chairman of Northern Tier’s board, was adamant that no additional core samples were necessary. Smoking a Churchillian cigar, the Denver oilman showed up at the Governor’s Office and demanded a meeting with Spellman. Dietler poked a finger in the governor’s chest and declared he wasn’t going to drill another damn inch. “As miscalcula­tions go, it was breathtaking,” says Steve Excell, a senior Spellman staffer who had looked on with astonishment. Dietler’s parting shot, as recalled by Excell, was “We’re going to put the squeeze on you!”  


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 12:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Northern Tier was just one of the things John Spellman got right. He was a very good King County Executive before he headed to the Governor's mansion, trying to keep a lid on sprawl and buying development rights to farmland.

He was also a fine Irish tenor.

Amazing to think that the Republican party was once a fairly big tent, before the hard right captured it and drove everyone else out. Will it even exist a decade from now?

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 4:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Great article.
Great story.

Gutsy dude to say the least.

salmonjim

Posted Fri, Mar 8, 6:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Amen.

afreeman

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