Foes fill meeting on Port of Vancouver oil plan

Commissioners may take action or delay decision on proposed terminal today

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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photoStanding under an oak tree. opponents of the proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver hold a vigil outside the port's offices Monday. The banner in French and English says "In solidarity with Lac-Megantic."

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In a high-stakes situation and under a national spotlight, Port of Vancouver commissioners are expected to take action this morning on a controversial proposal to build the largest oil terminal in the Pacific Northwest.

They may delay a decision because of public safety and other concerns raised by opponents who packed the commissioners' hearing room Monday night and spilled into the lobby because there weren't enough seats. However, port managers are recommending Commissioners Jerry Oliver, Brian Wolfe and Nancy Baker approve what would amount to one of the largest financial arrangements in the history of the 100-year-old port.

For perspective: The port anticipates operating revenues of $34 million this year. A lease deal with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies would bring $4.5 million annually to the port, or $45 million over the first 10 years of the lease.

The companies' oil-by-rail plan would invest up to $100 million to build a 42-acre operation capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day. The companies say the project will generate an estimated 250 temporary construction jobs and up to 120 full-time positions, most of them hired locally.

More than 90 people jammed the port's administrative office Monday night. Judging by hands raised in opposition and claps in support of speakers, attendees overwhelmingly opposed the crude oil facility. Opponents ranged from members of a Vancouver environmental group and a man who traveled from Southern Oregon to a professor from the University of Louisville. And Vancouver and Portland members of the national group Climate Parents presented commissioners with 14,000 signatures demanding they reject the plan by Tesoro and Savage.

The commissioners' meeting started at 7 p.m., with port managers delivering a presentation that lasted past 8 p.m. Then people were invited to testify and to keep their remarks short. By 9 p.m. Monday, 15 people had urged commissioners to reject the Tesoro-Savage plan, and more were lined up to speak. Except for port staff,

no one had spoken in favor of the oil terminal. Critics hammered away at the project on several fronts, including that it will increase the risk of oil spills, release toxics into the air and exacerbate global warming.

Andy Mechling, who traveled from Southern Oregon to testify Monday night, urged commissioners to read material safety data sheets that he offered to provide them. They show that Bakken crude oil — which the Tesoro-Savage plan would haul by rail through the Columbia River Gorge to the Port of Vancouver — is "extremely flammable stuff," he said.

Lease agreement

Monday night's workshop gave the three commissioners an opportunity to review the potential elements of a lease with Tesoro and Savage. The review was broad. "Where's the lease?" one man yelled from the audience. Port managers told commissioners that public and environmental safety, accountability and social responsibility will be built into any agreement with the companies.

Curtis Shuck, director of economic development and facilities for the port, said the companies would have to agree to stringent rail and operation safety plans before the port would allow them to operate their facilities.

"But after you sign the lease," called out one attendee, interrupting Shuck. The comment underscored what many critics told commissioners Monday night: Don't rush a lease decision, and give more time for people to comment on the oil terminal plan.

Shuck said the deal would be an economic boon for the port and the community, allowing the port to re-invest $30 million in further industrial development, and creating a ripple effect of 2,700 jobs, as well as $18.8 million in state and local tax revenue annually.

Karen Axell of the Rosemere Neighborhood Association, an environmental group, questioned the port's economic numbers and said the port's $25 million in pollution legal liability is "pitifully low." Referring to the July 6 deadly oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Axell told commissioners to "ask the people of Quebec what they think" of the port's liability insurance.

The calamity in Lac-Megantic vaporized a large swath of the downtown, killed 50 people, forced the evacuation of 2,000 and prompted investigations.

And it loomed large at the port Monday evening. About an hour before the commission's 7 p.m. hearing, more than 30 opponents of the oil terminal gathered outside the port's administrative building to hold a vigil honoring the victims of the catastrophe in Lac-Megantic.

State approval needed

In addition to requiring a lease deal from port commissioners, the plan by Tesoro and Savage would have to clear an examination by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which would make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say.

The council's review could take up to a year or more. The companies hope to launch the terminal in 2014.

Tesoro and Savage would bring oil by train from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, where oil is extracted by hydraulic fracturing. The oil would be stored and later transferred to vessels for shipment to U.S. refineries.

The crude oil operation would initially add one to two unit trains per day. That would increase to four unit trains per day once the operation hits its peak. The oil-bearing trains would run through the Columbia River Gorge and close to downtown Vancouver.

Tesoro and Savage have said they'll implement a safe oil-handling plan, including deployment of state-of-the-art, double-hulled marine vessels and rail cars.

Investigators in Canada are examining what led to the explosion after the derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, according to the Globe and Mail newspaper. Citing industry sources, the newspaper said one possibility is whether the crude, hauled from the Bakken site, contained volatile chemicals.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com