Port of Vancouver calls for stricter oil-train safety rules

Opponents of terminal proposal say action comes late

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter

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Port of Vancouver commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution spelling out the port’s backing of new federal oil train safety legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

The two-page resolution says the port supports Cantwell’s recently proposed Crude-by-Rail Safety Act, including an immediate ban on the use of unsafe tank cars and the requirement that railroads prepare comprehensive oil spill response plans for large accidents and spills.

The port makes “safety our No. 1 goal,” said Commissioner Jerry Oliver, who, along with commissioners Nancy Baker and Brian Wolfe, voted “yes” on the resolution.

The resolution comes after commissioners approved a lease, in 2013, to allow Tesoro Corp., a petroleum refiner, and Savage Companies, a transportation company, to build what would be the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil transfer terminal at the port.

Opponents of the oil terminal said Tuesday that while they had no objection to the port’s resolution, it was coming long after public safety issues were initially raised.

Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said commissioners abdicated their authority to make safety a priority when they “signed off on a lease just after” the fire was being put out in Lac Megantic — a reference to the July 6, 2013, oil-train disaster in Quebec that killed 47 people and leveled part of the town. The port commission took its first unanimous vote to approve the lease on July 23, 2013.

The oil terminal proposed for the port is undergoing an environmental impact analysis by the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The council is expected to issue a draft impact analysis in July. The public would then have an opportunity to comment on it. Eventually, the council will make a recommendation to Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, who may approve or deny the project. The outcome may be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The port’s resolution says it supports national standards for the inspection of rail systems, “as well as mandatory reporting of rail conditions.” The resolution also says the port supports a national standard “for the maximum volatility of crude oil.” Cantwell’s bill would require federal regulators to develop new rules limiting the volatile gas contained in crude moved by rail.

The resolution also supports measures included in a bill recently passed by state lawmakers, including extending an oil spill response tax to cover rail tank cars. Don Orange, a small business owner in Vancouver, said Cantwell’s bill would never make it through Congress and that if the port cared about high safety standards, it wouldn’t have signed the lease in the first place.

Port officials said the resolution was no afterthought and that they’d been working for some time with state and federal officials, including a visit with Cantwell in Washington, D.C., to encourage new rail safety measures. If enough people get behind Cantwell’s bill, then it “has a chance of passing,” said Todd Coleman, the port’s CEO.