In the end, it's no contest: The drawbacks to building an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver greatly outweigh the benefits of such a plan, and state officials eventually should reject the proposal.
At the heart of the issues are the future of Vancouver's waterfront, the local economy, the quality of life for residents, safety concerns, and the image the city wishes to portray to the rest of the world. On each count, the proposal approved by port commissioners comes up short:
• The deal reached with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies is butting heads with a $1.3 billion redevelopment of the former Boise Cascade site along the Columbia River, less than two miles upriver from the proposed oil terminal. Given the proximity of the projects and the fact that oil-bearing trains would pass within 100 feet of much of the development, these proposals are, indeed, mutually exclusive. It is unrealistic to think the waterfront development would not be hampered by the oil terminal, and a mixed-use project would have far greater growth potential for the city.
• The proposed $110 million oil terminal would bring an estimated 120 full-time jobs to the port, handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day. It would be worth at least $45 million to the port for the first 10 years of the agreement. But broad-based economic development such as that provided by the waterfront development would have more far-reaching economic benefits.
• Trains carrying up to 380,000 barrels of crude per day through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Washougal, Camas, and then Vancouver, would do little to enhance the region's quality of life. Port Commissioner Brian Wolfe said at a recent public meeting that BNSF Railway currently is operating at full capacity and that it's the railroad company's responsibility to address that, not the port's. That is not an adequate answer. Considering a spate of oil-train explosions in North America over the past six months, port officials must do more to reassure the public regarding safety concerns.
• That brings us to an inconvenient truth: Nothing could adequately reassure the public regarding safety concerns. The fact is, regardless of how many safeguards are in place, transporting oil is fraught with peril, and transporting it through heavily populated areas is an invitation to disaster.
• Cities throughout the country in recent decades have repurposed their waterways and riverfronts. What once were conduits for heavy industry now are locations for tourism, service industries, and white-collar jobs, and that speaks to what kind of image Vancouver wishes to cultivate. Look at it this way: Will residents more effectively promote their city by telling outsiders, "Hey, we have a new oil terminal and lots more trains going through the heart of the city," or by saying, "We have an amazing new waterfront development along the majestic Columbia River"? Or look at it this way: If Vancouver were being built from scratch, the last thing officials would do is put railroad access along the waterfront. It would be a travesty to exacerbate that unfortunate situation by becoming more reliant upon already crowded rail lines.
More than 31,000 public comments regarding the oil terminal were received by the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which will determine which factors to consider and then launch a lengthy evaluation process. Eventually, Gov. Jay Inslee will have the final say on whether the proposal is approved. Because of the proposal's vast, long-lasting impact upon Vancouver, every possible environmental and economic factor should be considered. If that happens, the final decision will be no contest.