Port of Vancouver oil terminal plan gets 31,000 comments

Input will be used by state to shape environment review

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The state agency reviewing a proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver piled up more than 31,000 comments before Wednesday's deadline passed.

The controversial oil-by-rail facility, proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, has taken on a higher profile than any project recently reviewed by the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. If approved, the operation would bring in oil hauled by train from North Dakota, before shipping it to U.S. refineries. The facility would be capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day.

The plan has drawn strong opposition in Clark County and elsewhere, bolstered by well-organized environmental groups now digging in for a fight. Opponents have also benefited from a network of volunteers already established for a separate fight over three proposed coal export terminals in the Northwest, including two in Washington.

But opposition to the oil facility has found particularly strong footing in Vancouver, said Laura Stevens, a field organizer for the Sierra Club in Portland.

"At this point, education is our best tool," said Stevens, who has worked on the organization's campaigns against both coal and oil. "We've found that the more we talk with people about this, the more alarmed they become."

EFSEC collected comments during an evaluation phase known as scoping, which determines what should and should not be included in an environmental review of the project. During a public meeting at Clark College in October, a parade of speakers — virtually unanimous against the oil terminal — urged the agency to make that review as broad as possible.

That could include everything from local air quality affected by emissions from the facility itself, to compounding the effects of global climate change by eventually burning oil that's extracted by hydraulic fracturing. Others have raised concerns about possible oil spills and accidents. The companies have said they'll have robust prevention measures in place, and detailed response plans in the event of a mishap.

While the Tesoro-Savage project has made Vancouver a key battlefield in the global debate over fossil fuels, it hasn't found the same regional response as coal. A proposed coal export facility in Longview generated an astounding 209,000 comments during its own scoping period that closed earlier this year. The coal projects are being reviewed separately by federal, state and local authorities, but not EFSEC.

The coal terminals have enjoyed the backing of a broad, vocal support group. But supporters of the oil terminal so far have been relatively silent.

Opponents will likely keep up pressure as the Tesoro-Savage review moves into its next phase. A draft environmental impact statement and adjudicative hearings are on tap, before additional review and a final recommendation by EFSEC. The project eventually goes to Gov. Jay Inslee, who holds final say over whether it gets built.

The entire review process is expected to take a year or more.

If constructed, the facility would be the biggest such operation in the Northwest. The companies say the project would generate about 250 temporary construction jobs and 120 permanent jobs, and boost tax revenues for Vancouver and the state.

Many see the terminal in conflict with the mixed-use vision planners have for another nearby site on the Columbia River waterfront.

"People of Vancouver have a real choice here in what their future looks like and what direction they want to go in," said Michael Lang, conservation director with Friends of the Columbia Gorge, which opposes the oil terminal. "It's probably not going to be both."