Mistrust, disagreement over oil terminal plan aired at meeting

Controversial issue draws about 60 people

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Mistrust and disagreement on the risks and benefits of a proposed Vancouver oil terminal were on display Wednesday night at a community meeting aimed at bringing all sides in the controversial issue together. And most of the mistrust seemed directed at Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, the two businesses that want to handle as much as 380,000 barrels at the Port of Vancouver.

Wednesday's event, convened by the East Old Evergreen Highway Neighborhood Association, brought representatives of those two companies together with BNSF Railway officials, property developers who oppose the Tesoro-Savage proposal, an environmental group representative, a longshore union leader, and emergency responders.

About 60 people attended. The Port of Vancouver, which instigated the Tesoro-Savage project by seeking out oil export proposals, originally said it would also participate — but later backed out.

Barry Cain, CEO of Gramor Development, outlined details of the planned Columbia Waterfront LLC downtown Vancouver waterfront development — and his concerns that oil exports could put that project at risk.

Cain estimated that plans for the former Boise Cascade mill site along the north bank of the Columbia River could ultimately generate $844 million per year in economic activity. After eight years spent developing the property, building roads and improving rail along the site, Columbia Waterfront proponents are in negotiations with restaurants, and could have plans for the first residential and office construction at the site soon, he said.

"When we first heard about the oil trains, we thought, well, they're probably not pretty, but we didn't think that was necessarily a problem," Cain said. "Then in July, the accident happened at Lac-Megantic in Quebec. That killed 46 people."

Since then, a series of other oil-related tragedies in North Dakota, Alabama and Virginia have left Cain and his fellow developers concerned that the Tesoro-Savage proposal could make their project harder to market. There's a chance the full Columbia Waterfront proposal might not pencil out, he said.

Cain's concerns were echoed by Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, who also questioned Tesoro's commitment to local safety. A 2010 Anacortes explosion was later found to stem in part from flaws in that company's safety culture, Serres said.

Columbia Riverkeeper is worried that Tesoro-Savage, which says it wants to ship light, crude oil for domestic use, might later ship heavier and more volatile fuels through Vancouver. Serres said he's also concerned about the volume of oil that would pass through the Port of Vancouver — more than all similar operations in the state combined, he said. And he said that even the Bakken oil Tesoro-Savage currently plans to ship to Vancouver is more volatile and explosive than other light crude.

Cager Clabaugh, president of International Longshore and Workers Union Local No. 4, based at the Port of Vancouver, said his members also oppose the Tesoro-Savage proposal. Oil exports would take up space currently being used for wind energy shipments, Clabaugh said.

The union has also clashed with Tesoro-Savage officials, who say they want to bring in Teamsters instead of ILWU members to work at their planned port project.

Tesoro-Savage and BNSF Railway officials both took turns highlighting their safety records, though neither directly rebutted criticisms about the dangers.

Courtney Wallace, regional director of public affairs for BNSF, said the railroad has an extensive program to inspect its tracks and minimize risk of derailment, with some heavily used areas receiving multiple daily inspections.

BNSF clients usually use their own railcars and tanks, but out of a concern for safety, the company has placed an order for 5,000 of the most safe oil tankers available, Wallace said. And in a worst-case scenario accident, the railroad is prepared to help emergency responders.

Questions remain

Officials from the Vancouver Fire Department and the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency also spoke on Wednesday, outlining their responsibilities in an emergency.

But Heidi Scarpelli, Vancouver fire marshal, said they still don't know how well prepared they are to address the risks that oil trains might pose to the community.