In Our View: Port Should Kill Oil Lease

Officials’ admission of violating law over terminal pact irreparably taints deal

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Editor’s note: This editorial has been changed to clarify the process for terminating the Port of Vancouver oil terminal lease. 

An unusual legal move by Port of Vancouver officials does little to mitigate the failure of their original action or to restore the trust of the public. If truly desiring to act in good faith and demonstrate that they are beholden to citizens, representatives should begin to terminate an agreement for the construction and operation of an oil terminal at the port.

Port officials last week requested a ruling against them in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups over the process that led to the terminal agreement — an agreement that is undergoing state review and eventually will be sent to the governor for approval or rejection.

In 2015, a Clark County Superior Court judge ruled that five of seven executive sessions conducted by port commissioners in 2013 were properly held. Two months ago, the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling and sent the issue back to Superior Court while providing guidelines for such meetings. That led port officials last week to request a summary judgment against them, with CEO Julianna Marler saying, “Based on this new information, we have asked the Superior Court for a final determination on the executive sessions in question. We believe this is the right thing to do from a transparency and public stewardship standpoint.”

It is, indeed, the right thing. But it does not go far enough. Port officials essentially are acting like the kid who gets caught with a hand in the cookie jar and then mumbles “sorry, I won’t do it again” while stuffing a cookie into his mouth and then reaching for another. If the terminal agreement was the result of improper actions by the port commission, then the fruit of that poisonous tree should be rejected.

The oil terminal proposal represents an agreement between the port and Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. to build a facility that could handle an average of 15 million gallons of crude oil per day. The oil would be brought by train from the Bakken region of the Midwest and off-loaded at the Port of Vancouver. It then would be transferred to marine vessels for transport down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. The Columbian has editorially opposed the terminal because of the danger presented by a vast increase of oil trains traveling past populated areas and because establishing Vancouver as an oil town would run counter to the proper vision of a robust, vibrant city.

But even if one feels the terminal would be beneficial for Vancouver, it should be impossible to reconcile that support with the egregious past actions of the port commission. Officials four years ago violated their duty, and when that violation was pointed out, they held a second meeting to rubber-stamp their initial approval. In the process, commissioners ignored the fact that they are elected officials and must be beholden to citizens rather than oil companies. The port controls more than 2,000 acres of public land and receives $10 million annually from property taxes, which means that actions taken under a cloak of secrecy amount to government malpractice.

In March, port commissioners voted 2-1 against cancelation of the three-month rolling lease. In June, they declined to consider cancelation when a motion by Commissioner Eric LaBrant failed to receive a second. At the end of this month, they again have an opportunity to begin the process for terminating the lease.

Considering that the proposal originally involved a violation of state meetings law, commissioners should seize the chance to demonstrate political courage and work to cancel the lease. It is the right thing to do.