Port crafts response in case of oil spill

Operation that would export crude brings environmental risk

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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When Tesoro Corporation and Savage Companies recently said they'd launch a crude oil operation at the Port of Vancouver, the announcement raised the possibility of new jobs and private capital investment.

It also raised the prospect of environmental damage, including the potential for oil spills in the Columbia River.

On Tuesday, the port sought to address how such emergencies would be handled, convening a workshop to listen to experts spell out their plans and inviting the public to comment, too.

"I like to call it a MASH unit for wildlife," Liz Wainwright, executive director of the Maritime Fire and Safety Association, said of certain emergency-response equipment, including a fully stocked wildlife care trailer. "It can be mobilized very quickly."

The workshop, which featured a presentation by Wainwright and others, occurred during the regular public hearing of the port's three elected commissioners. It came weeks after the announcement in April by Tesoro and Savage that they've formed a joint venture to build and operate facilities to store, load and unload crude oil at the port.

The crude oil would be shipped to the port by rail from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota. Then it would be hauled by ship to refineries in Washington, California and Alaska for domestic purposes, including gasoline for cars and trucks.

The companies say they expect it will take nine to 18 months to secure permits. The oil venture comes on top of other similar enterprises, including Waltham, Mass.-based Global Partners' use of a mothballed ethanol plant at the Port of St. Helens to store and ship crude oil. The undertaking by Tesoro and Savage also joins two remaining bids to export coal from the Pacific Northwest to energy-hungry Asia. The energy-market activity pits demands for fossil-fueled economic growth against calls to embrace renewable energy to curb the catastrophic impacts of global warming.

The port's Board of Commissioners is expected to decide in June or July a lease deal that would accommodate the proposal by Tesoro and Savage. Likewise, a public vetting will occur before Washington state's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, a one-stop place for evaluating requests for permits to build major energy facilities.

During Tuesday's workshop, commissioners learned of the resources available for responding to oil spills. Those resources include the Maritime Fire and Safety Association, a not-for-profit membership association; the Columbia River Steamship Operators Association; and the Clean Rivers Cooperative. Since 1992, those organizations have teamed up to share expenses and resources in responding to oil spills in the Lower Columbia and Willamette rivers.

They operate under Washington and Oregon state regulations.

Wainwright said the Maritime Fire and Safety Association and Clean Rivers co-own one of the largest inventories of oil spill response equipment, valued at $4.1 million. That cleanup equipment includes containment booms, vessels designed to recover oil, portable skimmers and storage tanks, and mobile equipment to treat injured wildlife.

Oil emergencies rare

Wainwright said last year, with 1,530 vessels on the water, there were less than five oil spills. In 2011, there were zero, she said.

Commissioner Jerry Oliver asked Wainwright for data showing the average annual number of oil spills. Wainwright said she didn't have the exact number but that she knows the trend has been on a downward slope.

Oliver asked whether there have been any significant oil spills in the past several decades. "I would say no," Wainwright said, adding that there's been nothing like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the Exxon Valdez.

Port officials said Tuesday they expect to convene more public workshops connected to the venture launched by Tesoro and Savage.

The companies want to spend up to $100 million to construct the new crude oil facilities. Construction work would generate an estimated 250 temporary jobs, according to port officials. Operation of the crude-oil facilities, which the companies hope to launch in 2014, would create an estimated 50 to 80 permanent jobs.

The companies would own the facilities, designed to initially handle 120,000 barrels per day with the potential to expand to 280,000.