In Our View: Tragedy Seems Not So Distant

Deadly Canadian oil train carries special meaning in Clark County

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Last week, any warning that "we don't want to become another Lac-Mégantic" might have raised little more than a few eyebrows in Clark County. Today, that statement is as haunting as it is real, in our community and around the world.

As of Wednesday afternoon, about 50 people are either dead or missing and presumed dead after Saturday's oil train derailment and explosion in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic near the border with Maine. The unmanned, 72-car train broke free and rolled about seven miles before leaving the tracks and exploding with such force as to destroy 30 buildings, essentially much of the downtown area.

The tragedy delivers a special horror into Clark County, where a crude oil terminal is proposed for the Port of Vancouver. As much as 380,000 barrels could arrive daily at the port after traveling through the Columbia River Gorge from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota. The oil would be transferred to large tanker ships to be transported to West Coast refineries. It helps to remember that fuel operations have existed at the port, and oil trains have rolled through the Gorge, for years.

But as Aaron Corvin reported in Wednesday's Columbian, port commissioners now appear reluctant to embrace the proposal or approve upcoming lease negotiations. They're hesitant despite the fact that the project could bring $100 million in capital construction, about 250 temporary construction jobs, about 120 permanent jobs and millions of dollars annually in gross revenue to the port.

Those kinds of numbers mean nothing to the people of Lac-Mégantic. Nor do they impress officials in the railroad and petroleum industries. "It will haunt me for the rest of my life," Robert Grindrod, CEO of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said in an interview with CBC.

In an April 24 editorial, we commended port commissioners for trying to "create local jobs while diversifying the port's cargo mix in ways that will help guard against fluctuations in the economy." We also warned against "possible environmental risks that could impact the port, the community and the Columbia River Gorge." And now, response to the Lac-Mégantic tragedy among Port of Vancouver commissioners has ranged from Brian Wolfe's "I don't want to hurry this" to Nancy Baker's "we're going to have to take some time to look at this" to Jerry Oliver's "there are clouds, and I want to have as many of them removed as possible."

Saturday's deadly explosion demands no less. The project here would require years to study and numerous public meetings. It would have to be approved by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, then by Gov. Jay Inslee. Already, though, environmental groups are expressing outrage that port commissioners might rush the process. Brett VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper is among the leading critics, warning about threats to the environment, to public safety and to the port economy if legal disputes erupt before the project or after any accidents. There's little possibility this process will be rushed. Then again, many probably believed there was little possibility a deadly, unmanned oil train would roll into Lac-Mégantic last Saturday.