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Citizen voices are not 'noise'

We voters who are members of Envision Columbia County are seasoned enough to know that most politicians tell us what they believe we want to hear, rather than what they actually think about a particular issue. We were not surprised when our county commissioners’ responded with a bit of testy indignation when we requested concrete evidence of their stated commitment to public safety. Commissioner Earl Fisher’s comments quoted in the June 4 Chronicle article were a case in point. He seemed to take our requests for evidence as a personal affront, labeling my remarks “a disservice to every elected official in this county.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Danner ChristensenIn my guest editorial published the week following his remarks, I expressed my belief that any citizen’s respectful request for concrete evidence of an elected official’s stated priority is never a disservice to any elected official. More importantly, I wrote, it is never a disservice to the thousands of people who live here.

So it is within this context that I watch the online videos of the commissioners regular meetings, ever hopeful to see concrete evidence of their stated commitment to safety. I listen for words that display their deep comprehension of the potential dangers of these crude oil tankers and the Bakken crude that they transport. When I watched the June 11 video and read the June 13 Spotlight article about commissioners’ statements at that meeting, I felt anything but reassured.

A few months ago a large turbine fell off a truck at Port Westward and dented an oil tanker carrying Bakken crude oil. This resulted in neither a leak nor an explosion. On the meeting video, Fisher seems to consider that event as an example showing that the cars are sturdier than some critics suggest.

I can imagine Fisher standing on the tracks at the recent Bakken oil train disaster in Lynchburg, Virginia, with the exploded cars and fire behind him. Looking towards the back of the train the first few cars are damaged but didn’t explode or leak. Following the logic of his apparent interpretation of the Port Westward accident, does he stand there and conclude, “Based on the evidence I see, these cars are sturdier than some critics suggest?”

If he wishes to showcase his priority to public safety, we encourage him to base his judgments on voluminous, objective, scientific evidence detailing the dangers of these tankers and their volatile cargo.

Nor was I reassured by Commissioner Henry Heimuller’s response to citizen Carroll Sweet.

Sweet related her recent experience of getting her horse trailer stuck on the tracks at the rail crossing near Walmart as an oil train approached. To her credit, she acknowledged her mistake leading to that event. Heimuller queried how the outcome would have been different if it had been a log train. Sweet responded that log trains don’t explode.

Disturbingly, Mr. Heimuller pressed on, asking her how it would have been any different if we ignore the “sensationalism” surrounding recent oil tanker accidents. I fail to understand how any commissioner can claim public safety priority, and so casually dismiss these real dangers as “sensationalism.”

Finally, on the video, Fisher chose the unfortunate word “noise” to describe the public comments in opposition to the trains and the Port Westward development plans. Dismissing their concerns as a minority view, he stated he could produce 62 people in Clatskanie, where he lives, that support the development plans there.

I have no doubt he could do this. Clatskanie does not have oil trains running through the middle of town. The residents do not need to deal with blocked crossings as they try to conduct their daily business. No tanker car could possibly explode in the middle of their town. Clatskanie has no impacted small businesses located on the east side of the tracks. There’s little threat to the quality of daily life there because Port Westward is tucked away far from town. Clatskanie will reap the majority of any economic benefit that results from these development plans, while experiencing little of the safety and small business problems of the towns along the rails before Clatskanie.

Fisher also stated he can walk down the streets of St. Helens and find a lot of people who support what’s going on. One can only conclude that he places more value on those who agree with him on the street than on the “noise” coming from those opposed. I do find his claim about St. Helens suspect. I can only wonder how many small business owners and residents on the east side of the tracks in Rainier, Columbia City, St. Helens and Scappoose he has actually talked to that support these plans.

Finally, before dismissing any citizen input as “noise,” I suggest the commissioners tune their ears to the “sounds” emanating from the latest election. Looking for change, 5,387 voters chose someone other than the incumbent, Mr. Heimuller. 5,301 citizens cast votes for challenger Wayne Mayo, and 86 citizens expressed the equivalent of “none of the above” via their write-in votes.

I have supported and voted for Heimuller in the past, but I did not vote for him this time. Nor am I a supporter of Mayo. I’m proud to say I was one of the 86 citizens who chose to write in a different candidate, a decision that may help propel this contest into next November’s general election.

I look forward to the privilege once again to create a tiny amount of “noise” through my vote.

Danner Christensen is co-founder of Envision Columbia County in St. Helens.

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