The Unstoppable Don Steinke

This volunteer has helped to close one fossil fuel terminal after another

By Wendy Becktold

July 6, 2018

Don Steinke, Vancouver, Washington

Photo by Leah Nash

Name: Don Steinke

Location: Vancouver, Washington

Contribution: Executive committee member of the Sierra Club's Loo Wit group

When did you start going after the trains and terminals of the fossil fuel industry? In 2012, I got involved in an effort to ban coal trains from going to the city of Bellingham, Washington. The city council threw the measure off the ballot, even though it qualified. Some people in my group told me about a Beyond Coal task force. At that time, I hadn't even heard the term "phone bank." 

Later, I read that 2,500 people had turned out for a public hearing against a proposed coal terminal up there. I was so inspired that I called the Sierra Club organizer in Vancouver and told her that I wanted to be a full-time volunteer. 

What's the connection between Vancouver, where you live, and a coal terminal in Bellingham? All the coal and oil trains from North Dakota and Montana go up almost to the Canadian border, then they follow the Columbia River down to here before heading to terminals on the coast. Vancouver is a choke point. My attitude has been, when these trains are going through our town, this is on our watch, my watch. I can't just be idle. At one point, we were fighting six coal terminal proposals at the same time. The one in Bellingham would have been the largest in the country and located on Native American ground. It was defeated about two years ago.

You've taken on proposed oil terminals as well, right? In 2013, a huge oil terminal was proposed for Vancouver. I thought, "I'm not going to work on this. I'm up to my eyeballs fighting coal terminals." Then the oil trains started exploding. In Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, 47 people were killed. I began attending hearings, and soon I was organizing. Last January, we defeated that terminal. We also stopped a smaller one.

Your wife, Alona, is also active with the Sierra Club. Yes. She was not a public speaker until a Beyond Coal organizer told her, "You're a nurse. We need you to be speaking." So she does it now, and she likes it. I think she feels like she's kicking ass. 

What do you do in your spare time? I can't imagine anything more fun, satisfying, and important than the volunteer work that I am doing. Nothing happens unless there are activists pushing persistently. Some fights take 30 years; some fights take 10. The one in Vancouver took us four and a half.

This article appeared in the July/August 2018 edition with the headline "The Terminator."