Commissioners accused of discussing oil terminal lease in private 9 times
By Aaron Corvin, January 7, 2015, The Columbian
Three environmental groups that accuse the Port of Vancouver of violating Washington’s open public meetings law in approving a lease for an oil-by-rail terminal now allege port commissioners used not just one but multiple closed-door meetings to illegally exclude the public from their discussions of the project.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the port are pushing back. They deny the new allegations contained in the expanded lawsuit. And they’re asking Clark County Superior Court Judge David Gregerson to limit the questions attorneys for the three environmental groups may ask commissioners during the case’s pretrial discovery phase.
The three environmental groups — Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Northwest Environmental Defense Center — are expected to file arguments against placing limits on their ongoing efforts to gather information about how commissioners decided on the lease.
Gregerson is slated to hear from both parties on the matter at 9 a.m. Friday, Jan. 16.
The expanded meetings law complaint and move to limit the questioning of commissioners Nancy Baker, Jerry Oliver and Brian Wolfe represent the latest legal skirmishes over the proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the port.
Tesoro, a petroleum refiner, and Savage, a transportation company, want the terminal to receive an average of 360,000 barrels of crude per day. The oil would be loaded onto ships bound primarily for West Coast refineries. The proposal is undergoing an environmental impact examination by the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
The council is expected to release the oil terminal’s draft impact analysis in May. The public will then have an opportunity to comment on the draft. Eventually, the council will make a recommendation to Washington Gov.Jay Inslee, who may approve or deny the project, or send it back to the council for more work.
The lease that was unanimously approved by commissioners is worth at least $45 million over an initial 10 years. It’s unclear what, if any, impact the open meetings lawsuit may have on the contract that undergirds the proposed oil terminal. But the suit, which asks Gregerson to nullify the lease, remains active. And it adds to other uncertainties, including the outcome of the evaluation council’s review of the Tesoro-Savage permit application, as well as the potential impact of plummeting oil prices on the project.
As Bloomberg.com reported Tuesday, oil “extended losses below $48 a barrel amid speculation that U.S. inventories will expand, deepening a global supply glut that’s driven prices to a five-year low.”
‘No final action’
The expanded lawsuit, filed by the environmental groups on Dec. 1, alleges Baker, Oliver and Wolfe excluded the public from at least nine meetings in 2013 before taking their first unanimous vote to approve the lease on July 23. The dates of the closed-door meetings, the groups allege, are Feb. 11 and 12, April 9, June 11 and 27, July 9, 16, 17 and 22.
The groups’ original lawsuit, filed in October 2013, centered on the July 22 meeting, accusing commissioners of illegally barring the public from witnessing their discussions about how public testimony would affect their lease decision.
But based in part on new information, the groups allege in their revised complaint, commissioners used some of the nine or more executive sessions to illegally discuss matters that should have been taken up in meetings open to the public. The discussions in some of the closed-door meetings “were not limited to the minimum price at which real estate will be offered for sale or lease, potential litigation, or issues affecting national security,” according to the expanded complaint, filed by attorneys Knoll Lowney, Brian Knutsen and Elizabeth Zultoski of the Seattle law firm of Smith & Lowney.
In a response filed on Dec. 16, attorneys for the port admit commissioners held executive sessions to discuss matters related to the oil terminal lease on seven dates (Feb. 11, April 9, June 11, July 9, 16, 17 and 22) but deny any of them were illegal. “No final action was taken during these executive sessions,” according to attorneys David Markowitz, Lawson Fite and Kristin Asai of the Portland law firm of Markowitz Herbold PC.