By Aaron Corvin, March 21, 2014, The Columbian
A new study commissioned by the Port of Vancouver has found a very low likelihood of a train derailment on tracks that run alongside a waterfront redevelopment project whose leader says will largely be ruined if an oil-by-rail transfer terminal is built at the port.
A port spokeswoman said Friday the study — which focuses on a key 3,000-foot-long segment of the port’s rail corridor that begins just west of Columbia Street — reflects the port’s longstanding commitment to safety in handling a variety of cargo. But it also benefits the “community conversation” about the proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to handle oil at the port, said Theresa Wagner, the port’s communications manager.
“We’re part of this community,” she said. “We want this to be as safe as possible.”
The port paid just under $20,000 to global firm TUVRheinland to study the 3,000-foot-long rail segment, part of which runs parallel to BNSF tracks. The segment leads to a new entrance the port is building to move cargo by train more efficiently, all of which is part of the port’s larger ongoing $275 million West Vancouver Freight Access project to improve its rail network.
Based on the current design of the port’s 3,000-foot-long rail segment and the train speed involved — which is no more than 10 miles per hour — Wagner said, TUVRheinland found the segment poses a
“very low likelihood” of derailment. What’s more, she said, the port is going above and beyond the study’s recommendations. The port will build another safeguard that runs along the entire 3,000-foot-long segment: a second set of tracks that will catch a train if it comes off the primary line. “We believe that by making the additional safety enhancements, the current very low likelihood of a train derailment on our rail system becomes even more remote,” Wagner said in an email to The Columbian. “Again, we engineered our rail project to be very safe, and now we’re looking to over-engineer it to be even safer.”
Barry Cain, president of Gramor Development — a member, along with local investors, of Columbia Waterfront LLC — said Friday that while he appreciates the port’s work, it doesn’t change his mind that an oil-by-rail facility in Vancouver imperils his effort to construct a $1.3 billion mixed-use redevelopment of the former Boise Cascade mill site.
“They can try harder, but they can’t ensure there won’t be derailings,” he said. Cain’s waterfront project, which will take advantage of infrastructure investments by the city and the port, is less than two miles east of the proposed oil terminal, and next to port and BNSF Railway lines.
Port administrators will present the full details of TUVRheinland’s study to the port’s Board of Commissioners during the board’s regular public hearing, to be held at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the port’s office, 3103 N.W. Lower River Road in Vancouver.
The study comes as public controversy over Tesoro-Savage’s proposed oil transfer terminal continues to unfold. The companies want to build a $110 million oil-by-rail facility capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day. The crude would be shipped by train from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation for eventual conversion into transportation fuel.
The companies submitted their permit application Aug. 29. An environmental impact review by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is expected to take more than a year. The EFSEC will make a recommendation to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who may accept it, reject it or send it back to the council for more work.
Curtis Shuck, the port’s director of economic development and facilities, said the port’s emphasis on safety and on putting its projects under third-party review, such as the study by TUVRheinland, is “typical to the way we do all of our design.”
Wagner said the review and the continuous improvement are “happening regardless of whether or not” an oil terminal gets built at the port. “Any train, whether it’s potash, wheat or crude oil, we want those to stay on the track and be safer and move through the community in a very safe way,” Wagner said.
The rail segment studied by TUVRheinland has already been designed and built to “a higher standard than required,” Wagner said. “We built it to mainline specifications.” The port tapped TUVRheinland, Wagner said, to tell the port whether the rail segment “is as good as we think it is” and to pinpoint whether it could be made safer.
The company’s conclusion of a very low likelihood of a train derailment is based, in part, on an analysis of various scenarios involving a grain train, a potash train and an oil train. It accounts for rail design and train speed. It also examines different operating conditions, including when a train normally uses its brakes and when a train must kick in its emergency brakes.
Port officials said trains must be traveling at no more than 10 miles per hour before they’re allowed to move from BNSF’s mainline onto the port’s rail segment that leads to its new entrance. “The minute they access on to the port that train speed has to be 10 mph or below,” Shuck said. “They have to start stopping or slowing down out to the east of here. That’s (the) requirement coming into the port.”
What’s more, port officials said, trains will move continuously which allows for safe, seamless transitions.
Wagner said TUVRheinland’s study recommends the port build a second set of tracks alongside a portion of the existing 3,000-foot-long rail segment to catch a train if it separated from the primary line. But the port will go beyond that and build the extra safety feature alongside the entire rail segment, she said.
The port estimates the additional safety enhancements will cost $500,000. The work will begin in the fourth quarter of this year, Wagner said, and be completed by early 2015. Moreover, she said, the port will ensure that the rest of its rail network receives the same kind of safety analysis that TUVRheinland conducted for the 3,000-foot-long rail segment.
Port officials also emphasized that they are working with multiple parties at multiple government and business levels — including BNSF Railway, federal and state officials, and Tesoro and Savage leaders — to ensure the proposed oil-by-rail transfer facility is designed, built and operated safely not just at the port but throughout the larger rail network and in the communities that will see more train traffic.
“We’re involved at all levels,” Wagner said. “We’re hoping that we’re providing influence and direction along the way, but the port’s rail system is a tangible thing that we have full control over.”
‘We’re good at it’
Cain, the president of Gramor Development, sees it differently. “It’s great that (the port is) putting a lot of effort into that piece in downtown,” he said. “They should be if they’re planning on bringing dangerous explosive material through there. They should be trying to do that.”
But the increased oil trains won’t just move into the port, he said, they’ll also travel through other parts of the region. And while railroad officials say they safely transport hazardous materials nearly 100 percent of the time, Cain said, that “.003 percent” equates to “eight or 10 wrecks a year.” He added, “Derailings are part of the railroad business.”
Now that people know “it’s catastrophic” when oil trains derail, Cain said, it’s “mind-boggling” to him that the port continues to pursue the Tesoro-Savage project. The port has plenty of other things it could do with its land, Cain said. “They don’t have to do oil.”
He said he and his development partners “want to do a world-class waterfront development that knocks your socks off, that is something way better than anything in the Portland metro area right now.”
But they don’t believe that’s possible, he said, if the oil terminal goes in. “I don’t think, if the oil trains go forward, that people will be able to finance or insure or even want to live” in the planned waterfront buildings.
That’s not to say he and his partners “wouldn’t do anything with the property,” Cain said. But the oil terminal means developers could do “maybe 25 percent” of what they want to do at the waterfront parcel.
But port officials say oil trains already move through Clark County and that more are on the way, regardless of whether the Tesoro-Savage project happens. In addition to the economic development benefits of securing the Tesoro-Savage project, they say, the port’s involvement in the oil-by-rail plan will make it safer.
“It’s going to move through the community,” said Todd Coleman, the port’s executive director, “and I know that there are people out there (who) say that isn’t true. They’re dead wrong.”
Shuck, the port’s director of economic development and facilities, said the port’s been handling “liquid petroleum products” for 55 years. “We’re good at it,” he said. “The reason people don’t know about it is because” the port, its tenants and other partners do it so well.
“It’s a team effort,” Shuck said. “Everybody along the supply chain has to do their part.”