Oil terminal plan foes pack hearing

State regulators begin evaluating proposal for Vancouver facility

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Tesoro, Savage officials address concerns

As state regulators prepare to vet a controversial plan to build the region's largest oil-handling terminal in Vancouver, hundreds of opponents on Tuesday delivered an overwhelming message:

The damage and risk from such an operation would reach well beyond Vancouver and Clark County, opponents said.

More than 300 people filed into Clark College's Gaiser Hall. The vast majority of them — many clad in red shirts — oppose the project for a variety of reasons. An hour and a half into the hearing, not a single person had spoken in favor of the proposal.

But Tuesday's hearing wasn't a popularity contest. The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council held the hearing as part of its "scoping" process, during which the group will decide what should and should not be included in the environmental review of the project.

Attendees urged council members to make that review as broad as possible, considering everything from local air quality affected by emissions from the facility itself, to compounding the implications of global climate change by eventually burning oil that's extracted from North Dakota. Opponents also highlighted environmental risks to the Columbia River ecosystem, and to the communities along the railroads that would bring oil through the region.

Among those against the plan are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4, who have voted to oppose the terminal, said President Cager Clabaugh. That's despite the fact that the union would benefit from some of the jobs the facility promises.

"The risk is not worth the reward, plain and simple," Clabaugh said before the hearing. "We don't want it."

Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day. The oil would be transported to Clark County by train, then shipped to U.S. refineries. None of the oil would be refined on site, only transferred through the port.

If built, the $100 million facility would be the biggest such operation in the Northwest. The companies say the project would generate about 250 temporary construction jobs and 120 permanent jobs, and boost tax revenues for Vancouver and the state.

Many in attendance on Tuesday appeared to direct their ire at Tesoro, which would handle the shipping side of the joint operation and be responsible for any oil spill responses. Late last month, a spill from a Tesoro pipeline in North Dakota dumped more than 20,000 barrels of crude into a wheat field -- among the largest recorded spills in that state's history.

Port of Vancouver commissioners have already approved a lease for the Vancouver oil terminal. But the project is just starting the lengthy review process that officials will have to navigate for the project to happen. It could be a year or more before the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council makes its recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who holds the final say.

Tesoro and Savage executives said earlier Tuesday that they believe the project will be an asset to Vancouver, and will pass regulatory muster. The review underway will answer the questions now being raised by many opponents, officials said.

"If we can demonstrate through the EFSEC process that this is an appropriate project, we're confident (Inslee) will see that," said Kelly Flint, senior vice president and legal counsel for Savage.

Environmental advocates, already energized in opposition to proposed coal export facilities in the Northwest, appear to be digging in for a fight. And unlike the coal debate, broad organized support hasn't materialized around the oil project so far.

The scoping period for the Tesoro-Savage facility began earlier this month, and continues until Nov. 18. But Tuesday's hearing was the first chance for many people to have their say in person. Opponents rallied outside Gaiser Hall before the meeting.

"This is a fight we can and will win, and it starts tonight," said Brett VandenHeuvel executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.