Environmental Group Pushes Port of Vancouver on Safety Information

By Aaron Corvin, July 8, 2013, The Columbian

A nonprofit environmental group on Monday urged Port of Vancouver commissioners to request more public safety information about a proposed oil-by-rail project in light of Saturday’s derailment and explosion of a train hauling crude oil in a small town in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Columbia Riverkeeper, which opposes a plan by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build a crude oil-handling facility at the port, said in a news release that Commissioners Jerry Oliver, Brian Wolfe and Nancy Baker “can request more information on public safety and require a derailment and fire response plan from Tesoro that shows the impact on communities.”

The July 6 derailment and explosion of an oil train in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic near the Maine border killed at least 13 people and forced the evacuation of 2,000. The death toll is expected to rise.

The companies are proposing to spend up to $100 million to build an oil-handling operation that would receive crude by train from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. The facility would handle as much as 380,000 barrels per day. It would be the largest such operation among 11 Washington and Oregon refineries and port terminals that are planning, building or already running oil-by-rail operations in response to a U.S. oil boom.

Theresa Wagner, communications manager for the port, said the port’s expectation is that Tesoro and Savage would build and operate a facility to the highest health and safety standards. “Our bar has always been extremely high,” she said. Commissioners could not be reached for comment Monday.

Tesoro and Savage need to secure a lease agreement from the port. The companies also must win approval from the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council — a process that could take up to a year or more. The council would make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say.

Port commissioners will review and discuss a proposed lease agreement during a public workshop from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, July 22, at 3103 N.W. Lower River Road.

Commissioners may decide a lease arrangement on July 23.

A ‘game-changer’

In a phone interview Monday, Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Hood River, Ore.-based Columbia Riverkeeper, said the tragedy in Quebec is “a game-changer” that shows “we can’t quickly and blindly approve leases based on the oil company’s schedule. The port isn’t beholden to the oil company. It represents the people, and the people deserve a full public safety analysis.”

The Port of Vancouver entered into an exclusive negotiating arrangement with Tesoro and Savage on April 18, public records obtained by The Columbian show. Later, the parties agreed to an extension. Exclusive negotiations are set to expire on July 31.

VandenHeuvel said that expiration date shouldn’t control the timing of a decision on the proposed crude-oil transfer terminal. “There shouldn’t be a rush to vote on July 23,” he said.

Wagner said the July 31 expiration of exclusive negotiations is “certainly a factor” in the process, “but it’s not driving it.” It’s port staff’s top goal to make sure commissioners have everything they need to make the most informed decision, she said.

To that end, port administrators have responded to commissioners’ requests for information and have convened, to date, four public workshops for commissioners, Wagner said. One workshop aimed to help commissioners understand the tools available for responding to potential oil spills in the Columbia River. Another focused on how railroad operators and regulators handle hazardous materials, including crude oil.

The other two workshops, delivered back-to-back on June 27, featured details about the examination process used by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council and a presentation by senior executives with Tesoro and Savage.

Columbia Riverkeeper has attended the port’s workshops, VandenHeuvel said, “and there has been zero information about a catastrophic derailment that we just saw. There doesn’t appear to be a public safety plan in place to respond to such a large-scale derailment and fire in Vancouver.”

Under the companies’ plan, crude oil would be shipped to the port by rail from the Bakken site, where oil is extracted by hydraulic fracturing. Eventually, the oil would be transferred from the port to ships bound for refineries in Washington, California and Alaska, where the oil would be processed for domestic purposes, including gasoline for cars and trucks.

On June 27, company executives told commissioners the crude-oil project capitalizes on rising U.S. oil production, boosts the local economy — including an estimated 250 temporary construction jobs and up to 120 full-time workers, most of them hired locally — and will operate in ways that minimize harm to the environment.

Critics urged commissioners to reject the crude-oil plan, saying it conflicts with the port’s own sustainability goals, increases the risk of oil spills in the Columbia River (the Columbia River Gorge is the most likely route for oil-hauling trains) and further fuels human-induced global warming.

Commissioners to meet

VandenHeuvel said Monday he will speak to commissioners during their regular public hearing today, slated to begin at 9:30 a.m. at the port’s administrative building, 3103 N.W. Lower River Road.

VandenHeuvel said he will urge them to reject a lease agreement with the companies or, at the very least, to put off a vote on July 23 and instead gather more information about public safety and emergency response in light of the Quebec disaster.

In his news release, VandenHeuvel said trains hauling oil to the proposed transfer terminal at the port “would carry the exact same Bakken oil that burned the Quebec town.”

The Port of Vancouver terminal, he said, “would require 1,460 trains per year — at least 4 full trains per day — to pass through Vancouver neighborhoods.”

Historically, Washington state has gotten its crude oil by way of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline system, delivering Alberta crude, and from oil tankers and barges, mostly transporting crude from the Alaska North Slope.

But that’s changing as refiners seek to absorb the U.S. oil boom and as rail offers an advantageous transportation option. Early last fall, the first oil shipments by rail began with the opening of a rail terminal at Tesoro’s refinery in Anacortes.

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