Proposed oil terminal focus of forum

Neighborhood group leaders criticize port's reason for not attending

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter



Vancouver’s East Old Evergreen Highway Neighborhood Association, with residents living near BNSF Railway tracks, wants information about a proposal to build the Northwest’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver. To that end, the association will convene a forum from 7 to 9 p.m. today at the Vancouver Water Resources Education Center, 4600 S.E. Columbia Way in Vancouver.

The forum will include brief presentations by proponents and opponents of a plan by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build a transfer facility capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day, which would be hauled to the port on BNSF tracks from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. The project is estimated to cost between $150 million and $190 million.

But the port, which approved a lucrative lease deal with Tesoro-Savage in October, says it won’t attend. Its reason is prompting criticism from neighborhood association leaders.

Those expected to participate in Wednesday’s forum include: representatives of Tesoro and Savage, BNSF, Columbia Waterfront LLC, Columbia Riverkeeper, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4, Vancouver Fire Department and the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency.

In addition to brief presentations, the forum will feature a formal question-and-answer period and, later, an opportunity for audience members to meet and speak directly with presenters.

The port, which approved a lease with Tesoro-Savage involving 42 acres and worth at least $45 million over an initial 10 years, “was invited, confirmed their participation and later withdrew,” according to an invitational postcard issued by the neighborhood association.

Katie Odem, a spokeswoman for the port, said Tuesday the forum began as an opportunity to share information but later “became more structured” and changed into a debate format, with pros and cons. “So that made it inappropriate for us to participate,” she said.

Roger Parsons, a leader of the East Old Evergreen Highway neighborhood group, said that’s false. The purpose of the forum has always been informational, he said, adding that it never morphed into a debate. “I don’t know why they actually withdrew,” Parsons said of the port. “My personal opinion, and that’s all it is, is that I think they have taken the logic of trying to keep as low a profile as possible. That’s the polite way of saying it.”

The forum marks the latest event held by a city neighborhood in response to the potential impacts of the proposed Tesoro-Savage oil terminal. It follows the Vancouver City Council’s discussion Monday of a draft resolution opposing the oil-by-rail transfer hub. The resolution cites many concerns, including the flammability of Bakken crude, a string of explosive oil-train derailments and tank-car design deficiencies.

To date, the Arnada, Esther Short, Hough, Fruit Valley, Harney Heights, Maplewood, Carter Park, Northwest and Shumway neighborhood associations have all taken positions against the oil terminal, according to Judi Bailey, neighborhoods program manager for the city of Vancouver, and City Council meeting minutes. The city harbors “66 recognized neighborhood associations,” Bailey said Tuesday in an email to The Columbian. She said she’s not aware of any neighborhood associations that have taken positions in support of the oil-handling facility.

‘Not a protest’

Parsons, the moderator of Wednesday’s forum, said the East Old Evergreen Highway Neighborhood Association has not taken a position on the oil terminal, and “we’re not sure we will take a position.”

Nonetheless, he said, the point of the forum is to allow people living along rail lines to hear directly from oil terminal stakeholders, to get questions answered and information clarified, and to have an opportunity to interact with presenters.

The neighborhood association is asking that no one carry signs or banners inside the Water Resources Education Center. “This is not a protest,” Parsons said. “This is an informational meeting.”

To be sure, participants in Wednesday’s forum have clear positions on the oil terminal. Opponents, for example, include Columbia Waterfront LLC, which wants to conduct a $1.3 billion commercial/residential redevelopment of Vancouver’s waterfront. The company sees the oil terminal, proposed less than two miles west of the waterfront development, as a significant threat to its project. Backers of the oil terminal say both ventures can co-exist.

But today’s forum isn’t a debate “between (waterfront developer) Barry Cain or Tesoro” or any of the participants, Parsons said. Its purpose has been informational “from day one,” he said. And while the port has the right to withdraw, Parsons said, its assertion that it did so because the forum turned into a debate is “absolutely untrue.”

“We haven’t changed it to one iota,” he said of the forum.

Odem, the port spokeswoman, said the port has, over the years, always shared its perspective during neighborhood meetings. But the oil terminal is Tesoro’s and Savage’s project, she said, so the companies are responsible for presentations.

Earlier this year, the port declined to participate in an oil-terminal forum at the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver, saying, in part, that it doesn’t speak on behalf of its tenants and customers, or lobby for them.

The same policy applies to the East Old Evergreen Highway Neighborhood Association’s forum, Odem said. “We had to be consistent,” she said.

Parsons said the neighborhood association reminded the port that it wasn’t being asked to “advocate one way or another” as part of the forum. But as the government that approved the Tesoro-Savage lease, “and the one who started this whole process,” Parsons said, it only makes sense for the port to take questions during the forum and to explain why it thinks the oil terminal is a good idea.

Parsons said the forum is intended to provide information to residents of the East Old Evergreen Highway Neighborhood Association, its sister association — the Old Evergreen Highway Neighborhood Association — and the Columbia Way Neighborhood Association.