Port of Vancouver again approves oil terminal lease

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter



Faced with charges it shut the public out of a discussion and final decision to approve an oil terminal lease, the Port of Vancouver on Tuesday held a new meeting and took another vote, again unanimously approving the controversial deal after listening to clashing public testimony.

At the end of a three-hour public hearing, port Commissioners Nancy Baker, Jerry Oliver and Brian Wolfe each voted “yes” on the re-opened lease, which involves 42 acres and is worth at least $45 million to the port over an initial 10 years.

The lease is with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, which want to build an oil-by-rail facility handling as much as 380,000 barrels of oil per day — the largest such operation in the Pacific Northwest.

An estimated 30 people testified to commissioners, with 20 voicing opposition to the Tesoro-Savage plan and 10 saying they support the project or want to see it receive additional examination under a state-level environmental permitting process slated to begin Oct. 28.

At times, Tuesday’s hearing bubbled with emotion. At one point, port Executive Director Todd Coleman apologized for the port’s mishandling of the first discussion and vote on the oil-terminal lease. He said the port’s handling was appropriate overall, but that some parts were mishandled.

The hearing brimmed with arguments and counterarguments over everything from the potential for oil spills in the Columbia River and the creation of jobs to the implications for global warming and the possibility of U.S. energy independence.

Meanwhile, two top executives in the region — one who leads a Vancouver-based manufacturing business, the other who heads a plan to redevelop Vancouver’s waterfront — delivered opposing views over the proposed terminal.

Commissioners directly engaged audience members — early on, at least 50 people packed the hearing room — and asked port administrators to answer the public’s safety concerns. Administrators said they’re working to create robust safety and emergency response plans.

Noting the port’s reason for re-hearing the lease, an attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper — one of three environmental organizations that have sued the port alleging violations of the state’s open public meetings law — urged the port to provide a fuller accounting of how it handled the first lease decision on July 22 and 23.

At one point during the commissioners’ deliberations, Wolfe pressed Commissioner Oliver about global climate change, including the rise in ocean acidification. Wolfe also expressed frustration, saying the port’s putting the “cart before the horse” in signing a lease before permitting is completed.

In the end, however, Wolfe sided with the other two commissioners in voting “yes” — just as the three had done on July 23, despite strong public opposition. Other ports are pursuing similar oil projects, Wolfe said, so there’s no stopping such facilities. The Port of Vancouver, he said, is the best-equipped port to ensure public safety, to address environmental concerns and to influence “how the railroads handle this.”

‘Not the moral choice’

Oil terminal opponents who testified Tuesday included Barry Cain, president of Gramor Development, which wants to conduct a $1.3 billion redevelopment of Vancouver’s waterfront with housing high-rises, parklands, shops and offices. The terminal site is two miles downriver from the development site. Cain said “maybe we shouldn’t believe” Tesoro when it says it’s mindful of safety, particularly in light of the 20,000 barrels of oil that recently leaked from one of its pipelines onto North Dakota farmland.

Cain said a recent series of derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials, including oil, is yet another reason to oppose an oil terminal in Vancouver.

Later, Wolfe asked Curtis Shuck, the port’s director of economic development and facilities, to explain how the port will manage the oil trains entering and leaving the port. Shuck said the port and BNSF Railway have a maintenance agreement. Under that agreement, he said, oil-bearing trains, rolling at 10 miles per hour, will run seamlessly into and out of the port.

Citing Shuck’s explanation — which included specific street locations for incoming and outgoing oil trains — Wolfe addressed Cain, saying oil trains “won’t stop at your location.”

“I can’t make it perfect for you,” Wolfe added, but “I’m trying to make you feel better” about it.

Cain said the Tesoro-Savage oil-by-rail plan “will devalue” the waterfront property. Knowing what Wolfe knows now about oil-train safety problems, Cain said at one point, would the commissioner feel “more or less excited about owning a condo” on the waterfront property?

Cain’s remark prompted claps and cheers from some people in the audience.

Backers of the oil terminal included John Rudi, president of Vancouver-based Thompson Metal Fab. Building the oil terminal, he told commissioners, would be tantamount to constructing “a great logistical asset” and additional employers will come because of it. Rudi said he supports the growth of “the energy cluster” and the lease with Tesoro and Savage “supports that cluster.”

Vancouver resident and terminal supporter Steve Lennon said the oil terminal will open opportunities and that blocking it in Vancouver would “not stop consumption of oil in the U.S.”

Cager Clabaugh, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4 in Vancouver, urged commissioners to deny the oil terminal lease. The record shows Tesoro holds a poor safety and environmental record, Clabaugh said, so the port should find another employer to bring to the port.

Vancouver resident Don Steinke, who raised concerns about burning more fossil fuels and exacerbating climate change, noted arguments suggesting the oil will go elsewhere if it doesn’t come to Vancouver. Some people say “well, if I don’t deal the drugs, someone else will,” Steinke said. “But that is not the moral choice.”

Port faced concerns

The port re-opened the lease for a new discussion and vote after it faced concerns that it violated the state’s open public meetings law when commissioners unanimously approved the deal the first time.

Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Northwest Environmental Defense Center sued the port on Oct. 2 in Clark County Superior Court. The lawsuit centers on the July 22 meeting of the port commissioners about the oil terminal lease.

The suit alleges that after the public comment period, commissioners held an executive session that illegally excluded the public from witnessing discussions about how the public testimony would affect commissioners’ decision on the lease. Commissioners “then convened the next morning (July 23) for a public vote but appeared to have previously collectively determined to approve the lease,” the lawsuit alleges.

As a result, the complaint alleges, the port failed to take final action on the lease deal in an open public meeting.

The suit seeks to overturn the lease decision and compel the port to reveal what was discussed in private. It also seeks to require the port to comply with open public meetings law by discussing a lease decision in public.

The suit cites, in part, information contained in a July 31 story by The Columbian that first revealed apparent breaches by the port of open public meetings law. That story prompted a citizen complaint, which led the state auditor’s office to say it will examine the port’s compliance with open meeting rules as part of the port’s next regular audit in early 2014.

The port says it consulted several experts, including the auditor’s office, to make improvements in how it handles executive sessions. That includes implementing a reference guide spelling out the proper use of executive sessions.

After the consultations, port Executive Director Coleman said, the port, under the assumption the earlier vote wasn’t effective, decided to schedule a fresh hearing.

Miles Johnson, clean water attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, said he appreciates the new discussion and vote but that he’s concerned the port gave short notice of the new hearing and held it in the morning when fewer people could attend. Johnson also urged commissioners to explain to the public what they discussed privately before their first vote on the lease.

After the hearing, Johnson declined to comment on whether Columbia Riverkeeper will continue to pursue the lawsuit against the port.

‘I’m the optimist’

In voting “yes” to again approve the lease, Commissioner Oliver said “accidents happen” in both the train and airline industries, and yet that doesn’t mean we forgo hauling stuff on trains or traveling on airplanes. Oliver said he’s confident BNSF Railway, in partnership with the port and others, will safely haul oil to the port.

Oliver added that the oil terminal will produce jobs and help enable the United States to achieve energy independence. “I’m the optimist,” Oliver said.

Commissioner Nancy Baker addressed the recent derailment of a train hauling propane and crude oil in Alberta, Canada. She said that wreck involved difference circumstances “under other people’s control or God’s control.” Since the original vote commissioners took, Baker added, she hasn’t heard anything that would change her “yes” vote. She said she’s confident in BNSF Railway’s ability to safely carry oil to the port.

Baker said she’d rather have the oil hauled by trains than have oil “tankers on the road.”

Under the Tesoro-Savage plan, oil would be hauled to the port by train from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, where crude is extracted by hydraulic fracturing. The oil would be stored at the port and transferred to ships headed to U.S. refineries, which would convert the crude into transportation fuels.

The companies say the $110 million oil project will generate about 250 temporary construction jobs, 120 full-time jobs, filled mostly with local workers, and boost tax revenues for Vancouver and the state. Opponents raise many concerns, including July’s fiery oil train disaster in Quebec that leveled a town and killed 50 people.

Although port commissioners have twice now approved the oil-terminal lease, it’s not a done deal.

The proposal by Tesoro and Savage will undergo a yearlong examination by the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The public’s first opportunity to testify to the council is expected to occur Oct. 28 and 29.

The council will review the companies’ 872-page application, submitted on Aug. 29, and eventually make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say.

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