Saving Maury Island may hold lessons for oil train fight

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The site of Maury Island's longtime gravel pit.

We in Washington state do not put up with litter. Remember those signs along I-5, warning any driver who might dare toss a Big Mac driver that "litter and it will hurt"?

But we might put up with coal dust-spewing coal trains or exploding oil trains. If Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring is right, we might not even have much choice in the matter. “One of the things that’s become really evident … over the last couple years, is that the railroad is really powerful," he told the Seattle Times in 2013. "There is really not much at the local level you can do.”

Maybe all this makes you feel like the guy who’s mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore -- except for the not-taking-it-anymore part, because regular people fighting big corporations seems hopeless. So instead you reach for the remote, your iPad, the bottle, your credit card, or whatever your preferred method of distraction is.

But sometimes “they” can’t do whatever they want. Just ask the folks at Glacier Northwest, formerly Lone Star Northwest  Inc., supplier of ready mixed concrete, and subsidiary of multinational corporation, Taiheiyo Cement.

The story of their attempt to bulldoze over Maury Island begins in 1998, at a meeting of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC): A representative of Lone Star announced his corporation’s plan to revive a Maury Island gravel mine, making into the largest sand and gravel mine in the United States. In response, a group of neighbors formed an ad hoc committee, Deep Impact, to fight Lone Star. According to Deep Impact founder Sharon Nelson, who would later become a state senator and Democratic Minority Leader of the Washington state Senate, “To the very core of their souls, they believed it [the proposed mine] was wrong."

What ensued was a 13-year drama of dueling impact studies, legislation, litigation, lobbying, public hearings, protests and the purchase of Glacier’s property. On one side of the battle were a multinational corporation and multiple regulatory agencies at all levels of government. On the other side were Deep Impact and other local residents; environmental, activist, civic and nonprofit organizations; University of Washington professors; a Russian monk; former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Ruckelshaus, and former Gov. Booth Gardner.

When it was over, the regular people had prevailed. Their concerns about arsenic being spread by the proposed gravel mining and damage to salmon habitat proved correct. A public park occupied the site of the would-be expansion.

How did a small organization survive and win a years-long campaign against a multinational corporation? What can regular people learn from their story?

To find out, I talked with Nelson. I also talked with Amy Carey, executive director of Sound Action, the organization that grew out of Preserve Our Islands (POI) which, grew out of Deep Impact.

Here are my conclusions:

  • They did not wait for Someone (Else).

Have you ever witnessed a fight and wondered whether to call 911? And looked around to see if someone else might already be calling?

This reaction, which I call the “Someone-(Else)-Should-Do-Something-About-This Syndrome,” can often be observed when communities are threatened by an abuse of power. When LoneStar announced it mining plans at a Community Council meeting, John Nelson, did not wonder if someone was going to something. He turned to his wife, Sharon, and asked, “What are you going to do about this?”

What she did was talk to her neighbors, with whom she formed Deep Impact, an ad-hoc, all-volunteer committee of regular people (no PhDs in marine biology, nor the kind of power or money to take on corporate conglomerates).

They met at Nelson’s kitchen table, munched on Milano cookies and launched a pushback that would garner support from not only Vashon and Maury islanders, but from people all over Puget Sound.

  • They adhered to the philosophy that when your heart threatens to stop beating, you go the emergency room, regardless of how much money is left on your charge card or in your checking account.

During the Great Recession, when many nonprofits were cutting back on their activities and laying off staff, Deep Impact (by now incorporated as a nonprofit organization, Preserve Our Islands, or POI), expanded its operations, initiating lawsuits and incurring legal expenses.

In fact, Preserve Our Islands sued every regulatory body that it believed had violated the law in issuing any permit to Lone Star. (Carey says, “There was not an agency we did not sue.”) Moreover it hired the best legal counsel available.

POI did not limit its work according to what was in the bank. Instead, members redoubled their fundraising to accommodate the group's expanded legal goals.

  • The organization decided that it makes sense to raise money by flat-out asking for it, face to face. Face-to-face fundraising is fast: Compare it to organizing benefit events or entering into the process of grant applications. It's also flexible: There are no foundation, corporation or government constraints on individual donor-funded activities. And raising money from individual donors is less affected by the economy than are other methods.resilient

POI members engaged in feisty fundraising by asking community members for money face to face. They took advantage of the foot traffic outside of the grocery store, where for years they would educate shoppers, pass out flyers and ask for donations. Nelson says that on Saturdays, “The Thriftway was our home.”

Yes, they held bake sales, mailed requests for donations, applied for grants, etc. -- but in addition to, not instead of asking for funds face to face.

    • If POI had had a mascot, it would have been the barnacle, hanging for dear life onto the bottom of its boat. POI was all-in for the Maury fight, all of the time. According to Carey, POI’s “tenacity got us through” the tough times and a long campaign. Perhaps POI volunteers were so tenacious because, as both Carey and Nelson suggested, they did not know what was to come.

Whatever the reasons, POI’s volunteers didn’t give up: Not when they were sleep-deprived from wading through tomes of documents to prepare for the federal court hearing. Not when POI’s president -- as well as other POI supporters -- were being sued. (Glacier tried unsuccessfully to sue Nelson, which may be why POI advised volunteers to buy umbrella insurance.) Not when POI’s campaign consumed all of their time. According to Nelson, “Every [POI] president who took this on gave up their life for a year." And not when they were, as Nelson described, “losing tons of court battles.”

So what is the takeaway for regular people who want to fight back and win -- even against a big corporation like a railroad or a mining or oil company?

It’s this: It can be done. It may be a daunting, exhausting, expensive endeavor. But with nerves of steel, preternatural tenacity and a willingness to make bold decisions and take bold action, it can be done. Consider getting some umbrella insurance. And Milano cookies.


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