Oil spill prep may ratchet up

Emergency response plans for a potential calamity on the Columbia, Willamette rivers are already in place, but they will have to be altered if a terminal built

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoRindy Primeau, a communications specialist with Merchants Exchange of Portland, Oregon, tracks vessels and updates their movement from a 24-hour communications center in downtown Portland. Merchants Exchange, Clean Rivers Cooperative and the Maritime Fire & Safety Association all help coordinate regional response plans on the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers.

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photoHolly Robinson is the oil contingency program manager with the Maritime Fire & Safety Association.

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photoAn oil spill response vessel passes under the St. Johns Bridge during a training exercise in Portland last month. Regional response agencies conduct monthly exercises and other drills to prepare for an oil spill on the lower Columbia or Willamette rivers. A proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver would require a rewrite of existing response plans.

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Oil by the numbers

300,000

Barrels of oil spilled in the Maritime Fire & Safety Association’s worst-case scenario emergency plan.

350,000

Barrels of oil that could be carried by a single vessel serving the proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

380,000

Total barrels of crude oil per day the proposed terminal at the Port of Vancouver would be capable of handling.

42

Gallons in a barrel.

223

Oil barges and tankers covered by the MFSA’s vessel response plan for the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers.

7

Instances in which the plan was activated in 2013. Each incident resulted in little or no oil actually released into the water.

The oil terminal proposal

Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies have proposed building a $110 million oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, capable of handling 380,000 barrels of crude per day. The facility would act as a transfer point for oil transported to Vancouver by rail. It would then be loaded onto marine vessels bound for U.S. refineries.

The companies say the facility would provide 250 temporary construction jobs, 120 permanent jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue to Vancouver, Clark County and the state.

Officials have filed a permit application with the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which is still reviewing the Tesoro-Savage proposal. Additional public hearings will be scheduled later this year.

After its review, EFSEC will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who holds final say.

BNSF Railway uses a familiar refrain to reassure people worried about the safety of transporting oil by rail. Company officials say 99.997 percent of all hazardous material moved by rail reaches its destination without incident.

The oft-repeated number isn’t comforting to Dan Serres. Not with a $110 million oil terminal proposed at the Port of Vancouver, right on the Columbia River.

“It’s not very reassuring,” said Serres, conservation director for environmental advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper. “In fact, it’s disturbing.”

Here’s why: The proposed facility would be capable of handling up to 380,000 barrels of crude per day. Even if 0.003 percent of that spilled on its way — three out of every 100,000 barrels — it would still add up to more than 4,000 barrels per year on average, either on the ground or in the water.

But that’s only half of the equation.

The millions of barrels of oil that would arrive at the Vancouver terminal by rail each year would leave by water on vessels floating down the Columbia River. The plan by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies would create a marine transfer point for oil on a scale unlike anything currently in the Northwest, and require rewriting regional emergency response plans.

The Maritime Fire & Safety Association, which helps coordinate spill response on the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers, plans for a worst-case scenario of 300,000 barrels of oil released into the water. Under the Tesoro-Savage proposal, vessels leaving the facility would carry as much as 350,000 barrels of crude at a time. However unlikely, even the remote possibility of such a spill is one responders say they must be prepared for.

Tesoro and Savage officials insist they’ll have robust safety measures in place to keep oil out of the Columbia River. Project general manager Jared Larrabee stands by Tesoro’s “not one drop” spilled mantra. Opponents aren’t convinced.

The communication center that keeps watch over the Columbia River from a downtown Portland office never sleeps. Responders also use detailed plans, regular drills and other exercises to stay ahead of any threat. And when Gov. Jay Inslee decides the fate of the Tesoro-Savage project, they’ll be paying attention.

Staying ready

On a recent February morning, an oil spill response vessel slowly made its way up a choppy Willamette River, fighting a swift current and driving rain. The boat’s “skimmer” arm, used to collect oil on the water, at times struggled to keep water from lapping over the top of it. Strong winds whipped the handful of crew members on board.

The foul weather was enough to keep most people home. It wasn’t enough to cancel this oil spill training exercise at North Portland’s Cathedral Park.

“These guys had to learn how to adjust with the wind and the current,” said Ernie Quesada, general manager of Clean Rivers Cooperative, which led the exercise. “That’s what we want.”

When a real spill happens, he said, “it’s not always sunny days.”

That’s why emergency responders welcome the opportunity to work in the elements, as long as it’s safe, Quesada said. Clean Rivers, a response contractor that serves regional facilities and vessels, takes part in monthly training exercises, plus other drills throughout the year.

February’s operation used a variety of equipment. The skimmer vessel maneuvered methodically along the water. Two other boats deployed absorbent booms near the shore. Quesada and others watched the exercise play out underneath Portland’s St. Johns Bridge.

Had it been a live spill, crews might try to direct the oil toward the shore, then pump it out of the water, said Holly Robinson, the Maritime Fire & Safety Association’s oil contingency program manager. And a real emergency means covering every detail, she said, even having enough toilets and food available for workers on-site.

Field exercises are far from the only way responders stay ready for oil spills or other water emergencies. The MFSA, Clean Rivers and Merchants Exchange of Portland, Oregon all play different parts in monitoring the region’s two key waterways, but all three entities work closely with one another, sharing an office in downtown Portland.

“We know what our jobs are, and we have our roles,” said Elizabeth Wainwright, executive director of the MFSA.

The core of the operation is the 24-hour communication center, equipped to keep track of all large vessels on the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers. The agencies stay in regular contact with the companies and crews responsible for them.

They know where each vessel is, and where it’s supposed to be, at all times. And they know what it’s carrying, whether it’s oil, grain, lumber, industrial equipment or other commodities that commonly move through the Northwest.

Oil spills are relatively rare. Out of hundreds of vessels covered, the MFSA activated its response plan only seven times in 2013. Little or no oil actually touched water in each case.

The Tesoro-Savage facility, if built, would change the landscape of maritime commerce on the Columbia River. Responders already have the equipment and capability to adapt, Robinson said. But emergency plans would have to be updated and submitted to Washington and Oregon authorities for approval. The MFSA’s worst-case scenario would get worse.

Still, the agencies say they’d be ready for any possibility. Wainwright sums up her team’s approach this way:

“We don’t like surprises,” she said.

Shaky reputation

Larrabee, the Tesoro-Savage project manager, lays out a lofty expectation for how much oil might spill when the facility is up and running.

“Zero,” Larrabee said. “The goal is absolutely zero.”

Project developers have already sent detailed plans and promises to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, the body now reviewing the proposal. An 872-page application spells out a long list of safety measures built into the facility, which would bring in oil by rail primarily from North Dakota, then transfer it to marine vessels bound for U.S. refineries. The document goes into great detail, even down to the five gallons of WD-40 lubricant that would be stored on-site.

The proposed design includes a “fully enclosed system” for moving oil from one mode of transport to another. Pipes and pumps would be contained within concrete trenches, according to the companies. Large containment pans would reinforce transfer areas. Multi-layered tanks would hold the oil on-site and on the water. If a problem were to occur, the entire facility is designed to automatically shut down within 30 seconds, said Marc Bayer, Tesoro’s director of shipping operations.

“Our focus is on prevention first and foremost,” Larrabee said. “That’s the highest priority. We take that safety very seriously.”

But Tesoro brings with it a shaky record and a less-than-stellar reputation. An explosion at the company’s Anacortes refinery in 2010 killed seven people. Last month, Tesoro reportedly barred federal authorities from entering a California refinery that had been partially shut down due to suspected safety violations. And a report earlier this year characterized the company as having a lax approach to safety.

That’s led critics of the oil terminal, including Serres of Columbia Riverkeeper, to question why Vancouver would be any different. Many simply don’t believe the company’s pledges to the community.

“It’s not going to be ‘not one drop,’” Serres said.

The joint Tesoro-Savage venture is in the process of crafting a contingency plan in the event of a spill, required by state rules. Company officials are also working with the MFSA and other marine responders as the review process continues.

In any oil spill, the vessel is responsible to pay for its cleanup, usually covered by marine insurance, Robinson said. Those numbers can add up quickly: In 2011, an oil sheen discovered on the Columbia River became a $22 million salvage operation of the derelict Davy Crockett barge moored near Camas.

The vessels serving the Vancouver terminal would boast safeguards of their own, Tesoro’s Bayer said. None would be towed barges, he said — only rigidly connected tug barges or tankers. Any vessel calling on the terminal would go through a vetting process to make sure it’s capable of serving the facility, he added.

As for the worst-case scenario? The cargo compartment of a vessel wouldn’t hold 350,000 barrels of oil in one giant tank, Bayer said. It would be divided into as many as a dozen separate tanks within the vessel.

“The probability of breaching even one tank is extremely remote,” Bayer said.

‘Devastating’ prospect

The proposed Vancouver facility wouldn’t be the first to ship oil down the Columbia River. Oil is already moving through the corridor by rail and water, and response plans have been in place for decades, said Don Pettit, an emergency response planner with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

But public awareness of oil risks has changed in a big way during that time, Pettit said. He noted one major shift came after the massive Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, which spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. More recently, a dramatic domestic oil boom has caught even regulators off guard.

So have a series of oil-related accidents across North America since last year.

“We’ve had a few examples, obviously, of how this can go bad,” Pettit said. “It’s gotten further attention of people in the U.S.”

Those recent examples so far haven’t included a major oil spill in a body of water. Local advocates say they’re not willing to put one of the Northwest’s defining features at risk.

“Any of it spilled in the Columbia would be devastating,” Serres said. “The risk to the river is just wildly disproportionate to the amount of jobs, benefit, whatever they’re talking about. It’s huge.”

Crews train for oil spill response