Vancouver seeks oil spill risk assessment

City wants to pick, with Tesoro-Savage paying, an independent analyst

By Aaron Corvin and Erin Middlewood




■ Previously: Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies filed an application in August with the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council to build a $110 million oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver to handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude a day.

■ What’s new: The city of Vancouver is seeking an independent analysis of emergency agencies’ capability to respond to an oil spill or explosion anywhere from Skamania County to the mouth of the Columbia River.

■ What’s next: Tesoro-Savage and the city will work out details for commissioning the study, which would be completed by an independent contractor.

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11 million barrels of oil moved by rail in Oregon in 2013.

The city of Vancouver is seeking an independent assessment of the region's readiness for possible oil spills, explosions or other accidents that may result from the Northwest's largest proposed oil-by-train terminal.

"We don't have experience with this kind of crude or volume," Deputy Fire Chief Dan Olson said.

Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver to handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude a day. The state's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is weighing the proposal. The council will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say.

If approved, the Tesoro-Savage terminal would receive as many as five full mile-long unit trains of crude a day. Recent fiery derailments in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick have raised concerns about the safety of transporting oil by rail.

"The biggest threat in hazmat is in transportation — when it's moving," said Battalion Chief Stephen Eldred, who oversees Vancouver Fire's hazardous materials team.

The team has 21 members spread across shifts, so just a few are on duty at any given time. The team responds not only to spills here, but also in Skamania, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties. Likewise, hazmat teams in the Portland area would assist Vancouver Fire with incidents here.

Tesoro and Savage have agreed to pay for an analysis to identify deficiencies in the capabilities of emergency responders along the Columbia River from the eastern boundary of Skamania County through the mouth of the Columbia River.

"The intent is to determine any gaps prior to the terminal being built and to rectify them before operations commence," Jennifer Minx, a spokeswoman for Tesoro, said in an email to The Columbian.

The parties are still working out the details. The city wants to be in charge of hiring the independent contractor for the study, with Tesoro-Savage providing reimbursement.

"We're treading carefully and transparently to make sure Vancouver citizens' needs are met," Vancouver Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli said.

Minx said the city will select and manage the contractor. The results of the study will "ultimately become part of the public record," she said. "Tesoro-Savage would like to review the report before it's made broadly available to ensure we have the opportunity to address any concerns it brings to light."

Local precedent

The city commissioned a similar study when San Antonio-based NuStar Energy L.P. added methanol to the list of chemicals it handles at two Vancouver storage centers in 2007.

Tesoro already has offered training for firefighters, according to emails obtained by The Columbian from the city through a public disclosure request, but the fire department is holding off on that for now, Eldred said.

A team from the city's fire and building departments, however, accepted Tesoro's invitation to tour its oil-by-rail unloading facility in Anacortes that's similar to the one proposed for Vancouver. City officials, however, declined the company's offer to pay for the trip. The city's budget covered the approximately $1,200 cost of the one-night August trip for six officials, Scarpelli said.

Tesoro's unloading facility in Anacortes is operated by Savage and is adjacent to a Tesoro oil refinery. During the tour, Minx said, Tesoro showed the Vancouver officials the crude rail unloading operation and parts of the nearby refinery "to give them a chance to see our facilities in action, specifically demonstrating how unloading is a very careful, contained process."

In Anacortes, unit trains have to be split for handling, something that won't be necessary at the Port of Vancouver, where a whole unit train can loop through the unloading area.

Opponents of building an oil terminal at the port have raised concerns about Tesoro's tarnished safety record, including the explosion in 2010 that killed seven people at Anacortes. In January, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said its investigation into the 2010 explosion found several root causes, including Tesoro's "deficient refinery safety culture" and a regulatory system that "too often emphasizes activities rather than outcomes."

However, Eldred and Scarpelli said they were impressed by what they saw in Anacortes.

"Personally, I felt pretty comfortable with it," Eldred said. "Their operation seemed pretty straightforward."

"It was spotless," Scarpelli added. "They were very serious about safety there."

Another project

As much attention as Vancouver fire officials are paying to the proposed Tesoro-Savage terminal, they also are eyeing another possible crude-oil storage project that has the potential to be running much sooner. NuStar Energy wants to handle as much as 50,000 barrels a day at its Vancouver bulk terminals. It has applied for an air discharge permit from the Southwest Clean Air Agency, but has yet to seek any permits from the city of Vancouver. Scarpelli, the fire marshal, said such a conversion would at least require an updated operational permit from her office.

"Right now, it's speculation until we have something filed with the city of Vancouver," Scarpelli said.

With two crude oil facilities planned for Vancouver and an increase in oil trains passing through, emergency responders say they will do their best to prepare, but it's probably impossible to ramp up for a derailment like the one in July that killed 47 people and torched much of downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

"You can prepare based on your typical threat," Eldred said. "To prepare for an incident like that would break the city."