In Our View: Speak up, Vancouver

Cities around state, House all weigh in on oil train concerns; where's our voice?

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Where are the voices from Vancouver?

Spokane has been heard. Bellingham has weighed in. Seattle is speaking up. Even the state House of Representatives has taken steps to help maintain some local control over the cavalcade of oil trains that are queued up to rumble through the state.

So, what about Vancouver?

The cities of Bellingham and Spokane both have passed resolutions calling for tougher scrutiny of oil shipments. Portland has rejected a terminal for now. And Seattle is expected to bring a resolution before the city council for a vote next week. That city is considering asking railway companies to consider restricting oil shipments pending further study, and might call for a statewide moratorium on oil-by-rail projects. A long shot, sure, but Seattle Mayor Ed Murray articulated the importance of such efforts: “The safety of our city and state are what is ultimately important here.”

Poignant and insightful words. We’re still waiting to hear them echoed by Vancouver officials.

Three oil terminal projects are in the works for the state, with the largest planned for the Port of Vancouver. That site could bring up to 380,000 barrels of crude per day through Vancouver from the Bakken region of North Dakota, and recent developments throughout the state reinforce the need for city officials to weigh in on the proposal.

While far from diving in on the issue, Vancouver has, indeed, dipped a toe into the water. The city has sent a letter to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, outlining concerns that it wants addressed in the environmental review of the planned terminal. It also has indicated that it wants to join the process as an intervenor, giving the city the power to present evidence during the permitting process. But officials have said they want to take their time before deciding whether to support the terminal, which leads to the obvious question: “How much time do they need to voice a strong concern over this project?”

Meanwhile, the state House of Representatives has passed HB 2347 in an effort to cull basic information about the oil trains, but the bill has stalled in a Senate committee. This is unconscionable on the part of the Senate. If the state considers the safety of residents and the preservation of the environment to be paramount, then the Legislature must press oil companies for information despite the companies’ protests.

“This is a very competitive industry, and we want to keep that information that would be reported confidential,” said Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association. If the oil companies adhere to that stance, they should be told to take their trains elsewhere. As Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, said: “We need to know what’s happening and be able to prepare for it.”

Any new bill focusing on oil-train safety is likely to extend a tax of 5 cents a barrel to pay for spill response and preparedness, a necessary — if inadequate — inclusion because local jurisdictions would be handed the bill for cleanup in the wake of disaster. Considering the spate of derailments throughout North America over the past year, readying for such a disaster isn’t a matter of preparing for the worst but preparing for the inevitable.

As The Columbian has written editorially, an oil terminal would be detrimental for the city. In addition to safety concerns, it would throw doubt upon a proposed waterfront development that is in the works about 2 miles upstream along the Columbia River. Other cities that would feel a lesser impact from oil trains have been compelled to speak out about the issue. It’s time for Vancouver to be heard.