John Spellman’s rendezvous with Puget Sound’s destiny

John Spellman while governor Credit: State Archives/Wikimedia Commons

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!”  

And they did. Proponents unleashed the political equivalent of a Duke full-court press. Spellman was set to attend a meeting of the National Gov­ernors’ Conference in Washington, D.C., in February. U.S. Energy Secretary James Edwards urged the governor to meet with him, as well as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, to discuss the “national-defense” implications of the pipeline. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige wanted to see him, too.

Recent turmoil in Latin America raised concerns about the security of oil shipments through the Panama Canal to Gulf Coast ports, Edwards said. The proposed pipeline was the safest, most expeditious way to move large quantities of crude to the interior of the country, he said, noting that even President Carter had underscored the importance of the pipeline to America’s long-term energy independence when he endorsed the project in 1980. Gov. Cecil Andrus, Carter’s Interior Secretary, came to Seattle at Northern Tier’s request to lobby the environmental community. If the pipeline was approved, there was the po­tential for a hookup with the state’s four biggest refineries, Andrus said, and that “might eliminate much of the tanker traffic on Puget Sound.” Though smaller than super, those tankers were still sizable, Andrus said, and they represented a greater environmental risk than the pipeline.

Spellman said he respected Andrus, a former Idaho governor, and certainly shared Edwards’ commitment to national defense. However, he would not meet with members of the president’s cabinet or, for that matter, with any other proponents or opponents. If he were to hear the administration’s views he would be required to reopen the entire site-review process, and “nothing has been presented to me” that would justify such an action.

In a room adjacent to the gover­nor’s office, staffers were sorting mounds of mail. Marilyn Showalter, the governor’s legal adviser, said the mail was running 2 to 1 against Northern Tier. Each writer received a form letter saying the governor valued input from concerned citizens but would base his decision solely on the record compiled by the Site Evaluation Council. “He’s a lawyer himself,” Showalter told the Seattle Times, “and this was his position even before he was elected. …What does it say about that process if the governor can talk to anyone he wants at the last minute?”

Everyone in the office knew he’d been studying the report because he packed it back to the mansion every night, no matter how late it was, and could be seen marking important passages with a yellow pen. Scoop Jackson said Spellman was wise to go by the book and resist pressure. “Speaker Bill Polk and Majority Leader Jeanette Hayner joined the fray, sending Secretary Edwards a letter saying they would be pleased to meet with him. Spellman was incensed. “It just occurs to me that the one person who is operating according to the law and is not being influenced by outside lob­byists for either side is the governor at this point in time.”

Edwards abandoned all subtlety. Reporters around the state received a departmental news release noting that Washington was due to receive $2 billion from the Department of Energy in 1983, more than any other state. The former South Carolina governor followed up with a letter saying Spellman needed to “correct a number of fundamental deficiencies in the record” of the Site Evaluation Council.

Spellman shot back: “He presupposes what is and what is not in the record. I’ll be the expert on the record by the time it’s over. He won’t. … The secretary has the process backward. The EFSEC hearings were an opportunity for all of the parties that had an interest to make their cases, to present their briefs, to make their arguments. All the federal agencies had that opportunity.”

With unemployment nearing 12 percent — 20 percent at Port Angeles, where the issue pitted neighbor against neighbor — labor was out in force, demanding that Spellman not “turn his back” on 4,000 new jobs for Wash­ington and 8,000 to 10,000 in all from Clallam County to Minnesota. The jobs figures were hotly debated. Peak employment from the projects would be more like 2,300, the Bureau of Land Management said in the federal environmental impact statement. It also estimated that more than 40 per­cent of people working on the pipeline would come from out of state. State Rep. Andy Nisbet, a Republican from the Olympic Peninsula, said that once construction was over there’d be only 125 jobs. “There’s more permanent jobs for Clallam County at the new Safeway in Sequim.”  

Although Lois Spellman wrote in her diary, “John seems terribly fa­tigued. I became greatly concerned he’s not watching his diet or getting any exercise, which troubles me,” John was having no second thoughts about his role as the decider. To Steve Excell he seemed “even calmer than usual. He was serene while they were haranguing him from all sides.”

Check back Tuesday for Part 2: Decision time, and a second threat to Puget Sound.

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