Editor’s note: The following article is excerpted 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 coalports 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 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. Spellman 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. The first part, published yesterday, laid 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.
On April 8, 1982, Spellman announced his decision. “It should be no surprise to anyone that I am rejecting the application of Northern Tier Pipeline.”
He had read and considered the council’s findings — “an epic process of due process.” Northern Tier had a year to present its final case, yet only “begrudgingly” gave evidence. The record was replete with its failure to support the feasibility of the project. An underwater pipeline capable of carrying nearly a million barrels of oil a day through an area with a history of earthquakes that could liquefy soils in seconds would be a “very real threat to Puget Sound, which in my mind is a national treasure.”
As for Port Angeles, an explosion or fire could place thousands in harm’s way. Only 110 permanent jobs would be created by the project, while tens of thousands of people depended on the Sound for their livelihood. Spellman hoped to create many more jobs by promoting Washington ports as the hub of American trade with the Pacific Rim. He wanted to make it clear that he was not banning all pipelines, just this one. “It is the governor’s duty to protect the state’s environment, its natural resources and, above all, the interests of its people. … I am satisfied that the findings of fact, conclusions of law and recommendations of the council are supported by the record. I concur therein.”
With that, he signed the order. Asked at a press conference how he would react to a federal attempt to override his decision, he said, “I would view it as illegal and probably immoral.” Northern Tier’s chairman said he couldn’t help thinking that if Dixy Lee Ray had been re-elected governor in 1980, they’d be ordering pipe. “She would have been less legalistic.”
“It is a sad day when a major energy project from which all Americans would benefit is denied to them,” said Energy Secretary James Edwards.
Congressman Al Swift, the Democrat whose district was in the pipeline’s path, called Spellman’s decision “wise and courageous.” He warned that Northern Tier wouldn’t give up. Spellman ordered the state Department of Ecology to file suit in federal court in Seattle to overturn the pipeline permits the Corps of Engineers had issued prior to his decision. “This is a state’s-rights case,” said Don Moos, the department’s director. “If you could put this suit to music, you’d probably use the Washington State (University) fight song.”
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