In Our View: Oil and Water Don't Mix

Danger of oil terminal at port outweighs benefits; majority of Vancouver City Council takes a stand

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It is worth keeping in mind that Dan Serres is an advocate for one particular point of view. Still, the words from the conservation director for environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper should resonate with local residents when he talks about the prospect of vast amounts of crude oil moving through the region: "Any of it spilled in the Columbia would be devastating. The risk to the river is just wildly disproportionate to the amount of jobs, benefit, whatever they're talking about. It's huge."

The issue, of course, is a proposal by Tesoro and Savage Companies to build an oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver. The plan would bring trains carrying as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day down the Columbia River Gorge and through populated areas along the riverfront. Once at the terminal, the crude would be loaded onto ships to be carried down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean on the way to refineries throughout the United States.

Serres' words represent one view, yet they ring more powerfully than the counter-arguments put forth by advocates for the terminal. BNSF Railway officials point out that 99.997 percent of all hazardous material moved by rail reaches its destination without incident. But with the volume that is being discussed for Vancouver, those averages translate into more than 4,000 barrels of crude annually winding up on the ground or in the water.

Project general manager Jared Larrabee says that Tesoro's mantra is "not one drop" of spillage. That is a worthy goal, yet an unrealistic one. As numerous oil-train derailments over the past year demonstrate -- including one in Quebec that killed 47 people and incinerated much of a town -- perfection is unattainable. A Tesoro pipeline in North Dakota ruptured last year, spilling more than 20,000 barrels of crude into a wheat field.

And Larrabee says: "Our focus is on prevention first and foremost. That's the highest priority. We take that safety very seriously." Yet a 2010 accident at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes killed seven workers and led the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to conclude that "safety culture deficiencies" led to the incident. And last month, Tesoro reportedly barred federal authorities from entering a California refinery that had been partially shut down due to suspected safety violations.

Finally, all of these facts have resonated with somebody in a position of power in Vancouver. A majority of Vancouver City Council members said this week that they oppose the terminal. The opinions of other officials are long overdue, and we again urge Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and other city councilors to tell the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council that the oil terminal would be wrong for Vancouver.

Meanwhile, questions about the plan are leading to much rhetoric on both sides of the issue. Advocates point to jobs that would be created in building and operating the $110 million facility. Detractors point to safety concerns, issues about whether a terminal can coexist with a proposed waterfront development nearby, and questions about what kind of face Vancouver wishes to present to the world.

The end result will be determined by Gov. Jay Inslee following an extensive study and report by EFSEC. Yet on every talking point in the back-and-forth debate, the idea of rejecting the oil terminal simply makes more sense for the people of Clark County. The very real dangers outweigh the benefits of bringing vast amounts of crude to the city.

As Serres said: "It's not going to be 'not onedrop.'"