Hearing on proposed oil terminal zeroes in on zoning

EFSEC hears pro, con comments if terminal plan fits land-use rules

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The state panel reviewing a proposed oil terminal in Vancouver on Wednesday asked residents to weigh in on a basic but specific topic: whether the controversial project complies with local zoning and land-use rules.

The Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council hosted a public hearing on the subject as part of its ongoing review process. The seemingly simple question it addressed drew a range of responses, including a request by the city of Vancouver and others to delay a decision until a detailed environmental analysis of the project is complete.

EFSEC can't make a determination on the terminal's zoning compliance "without knowing the full extent of the environmental impacts of the project, and how — or if — those impacts will be mitigated," said Bronson Potter, Vancouver's chief assistant city attorney.

A draft environmental impact statement — which will offer the most detailed look yet at the proposal — should be complete this summer, EFSEC Manager Stephen Posner said Wednesday.

The council took no action during the meeting.

Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build an oil transfer terminal capable of handling up to 380,000 barrels of crude per day at the Port of Vancouver. If built, the facility would be the largest of its kind in the Northwest.

The proposal is in the hands of EFSEC, the state body charged with reviewing large energy projects. And while the group earlier this year decided to pursue a sweeping analysis of the Tesoro-Savage proposal's environmental impacts, the focus of Wednesday's hearing was narrow. Participants were reined in if they strayed from the topic of land-use and zoning ordinances.

The proposed site of the oil terminal is owned by the Port of Vancouver and zoned for heavy industrial use. Jay Derr, an attorney representing the companies, said the project "clearly" fits the requirements of that designation and other rules.

Potter noted those rules apply to any ordinance relating to the use of land, "not just a map." Representatives of several environmental groups questioned whether the oil terminal would adequately protect critical areas on the Columbia River as required by law, for example.

Vancouver resident Den Mark Wichar pointed to Vancouver's city code spelling out community goals, which include responsible stewardship of natural resources, preserving the character of existing neighborhoods and promoting the reduction of congestion and air pollution.

"Not only does the proposal not measure up to community goals; it threatens them," Wichar said.

The proposed oil terminal has drawn vocal opposition since plans were first unveiled last year. Large crowds have packed public meetings on the subject recently. A majority of Vancouver City Council members have said they're against the plan, and could vote to make that stance official in June.

Meanwhile, Tesoro and Savage executives have continued to meet with local leaders and others, defending the proposal and touting its economic benefits to the community.

Opponents have raised a host of environmental and safety concerns with the facility that would receive oil by rail, then transfer it to marine vessels to be shipped to U.S. refineries. A series of derailments and explosions involving oil trains since last year have only heightened many of those worries.

Several speakers asked for another opportunity to address the land-use question after Wednesday's hearing. EFSEC Chair Bill Lynch adjourned the meeting without giving any indication that there will be another hearing specific to that subject. But additional public hearings on the oil terminal will be scheduled as the review continues, he said.

EFSEC will ultimately make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who holds final say over the project's approval.