Port must get tough with Tesoro

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Tesoro wants to turn Vancouver into one of the nation's largest oil exporting ports, sending up to 1,460 full trains per year through Vancouver neighborhoods to a new terminal at the Port of Vancouver. The very same oil that Tesoro seeks to bring through Vancouver -- Bakken crude -- on July 6 devastated Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing at least 20 people and perhaps as many as 50 in a stunning explosion when an oil train derailed. Dozens are still missing and horrific reports suggest they may never be found because the explosion "incinerated" 30 buildings.

Now is the time to consider: Does Vancouver want over a thousand Bakken oil trains passing between downtown and the waterfront every year? Is it worth the risk?

Port Commissioners Jerry Oliver, Nancy Baker, and Brian Wolfe will vote yes or no on Tesoro's unprecedented oil terminal. The commissioners had scheduled a vote on July 23, but wisely postponed after the tragedy in Quebec raised too many questions about Bakken oil.

The biggest question is public safety. Tesoro has not provided the port or the Vancouver Fire Department with a comprehensive Emergency Response Plan. No reasonable person would approve a lease without a thoroughly reviewed Emergency Response Plan. We know what can happen when an oil train derails. We've shed tears and said prayers for the people of Lac-Mégantic.

Timing is important here. The port must evaluate the safety threats before approving the lease. A promise to study public safety and create an Emergency Response Plan some time in the future, or to rely on the state of Washington, is a bad idea. Why sign a long-term lease now and ask questions later? Why give local control away to a state agency?

Tesoro will certainly argue that derailments are not common events. Kent Avery of Tesoro recently told the port commission that crude by rail "is a very safe mode of transportation." The CEO of the company responsible for the Lac-Mégantic disaster stated, "We've had a very good safety record for these 10 years." Then he added, "Well, I think we've blown it here." When you're handling hazardous cargo, the consequences of failure are extremely high.

What are the risks?

The port should demand straight answers from the oil companies. What are the risks of crude on the Columbia? "Some people call it mother's milk," Mark Smith, a representative from Tesoro-Savage, told the port, referring to Bakken oil. Mother's milk? Really? Crude oil is toxic. Paul Goldstein, Ph.D., Stanford professor of toxicology, warns: "[T]he effects of exposure to this toxin will be felt not only acutely, but from generation to generation. Children and pregnant mothers are at significant risk." A massive oil export terminal flies in the face of the port's commitment to the health of the community and environmental stewardship.

The commissioners could blindly trust Tesoro's PowerPoint slides that tout their safety and environmental stewardship, or they look at the facts. In 2010, an explosion at Tesoro's petroleum refinery in Anacortes killed seven people. State investigators concluded the deadly explosion could have been prevented and cited Tesoro for knowingly violating rules and creating a substantial probability of serious injury or death. In addition, Tesoro paid $1.1 million to resolve more than 4,000 Clean Air Act violations at refineries in Washington and three other states, the largest penalty of this type in the 40-year history of the EPA's clean fuels program. According to federal data, Tesoro is one of the top 50 toxic air polluters in the country.

Many other commodities produce good jobs and don't put the public at risk. The residents of Vancouver and the port workers deserve better than dangerous and dirty oil trains. There are plenty of reasons to reject dirty oil: risk of destroying salmon runs on the Columbia River, increased oil train traffic just blocks from downtown and the proposed Waterfront Project, and sullying the port's reputation.

But most important is public safety. It is time for the port commissioners to ask tough questions and demand answers.

Brett VandenHeuvelis executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper (http://www.columbiariverkeeper.org). Email: bv@columbiariverkeeper.org.