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Port of Vancouver to reopen oil lease for new discussion and vote

Critics say first vote violated public meetings law

By , Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published: October 17, 2013, 5:00pm

The Port of Vancouver said Thursday it will reopen its lease for a controversial oil terminal to a new discussion and vote next week in light of concerns that it violated the state’s open public meetings law when it originally approved the $45 million deal in July.

The port’s commissioners will meet Oct. 22 to review the lease they unanimously approved on July 23 — despite public testimony overwhelmingly against it — with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. The companies want to build an oil-by-rail terminal handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

The lease re-examination and expected vote are set to occur during the three commissioners’ regular public hearing, to be held at 9:30 a.m. at the port’s administrative building, 3103 N.W. Lower River Road, Vancouver.

Theresa Wagner, the port’s communications manager, said commissioners Jerry Oliver, Brian Wolfe and Nancy Baker will take public testimony on the oil lease, along with other agenda items. Oliver and Wolfe could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

Baker said port Executive Director Todd Coleman and legal staff decided to recommend new discussions and a new vote on the oil lease, in part because of a lawsuit filed against the port alleging it violated open public meetings law. The recommendation came after the port consulted with officials, including the state Auditor’s Office, about the proper course of action.

“I can’t speak for the other two” commissioners about how they will vote the second time around, Baker said, but she doubts she will change her vote to “no” unless “I hear something very drastic in the meantime.”

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper — one of three environmental groups that sued the port alleging open public meetings violations — said Thursday the port’s revote “is an acknowledgment of the port breaking the law, but they also violated the public’s trust by having secret meetings behind closed doors.”

VandenHeuvel said he expects a significant public turnout for the Oct. 22 hearing. “The public’s obviously very concerned about a mega-oil terminal in Vancouver,” he said.

It’s not unprecedented for a government to take a do-over to correct apparent violations of open public meetings law, according to Toby Nixon of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. However, such action “doesn’t necessarily relieve them of the lawsuit,” he said. “The fact that they violated the law in the first place still stands, assuming the accusations are all correct, and they may still have to pay the attorneys fees of the groups that filed the lawsuit,” Nixon said.

‘Not a solution’

Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Northwest Environmental Defense Center filed the lawsuit on Oct. 2 in Clark County Superior Court. It centers on a July 22 meeting of the port commissioners about the oil lease agreement.

The suit alleges that after the public comment period, commissioners held an executive session that illegally excluded the public from witnessing discussions about how the public testimony would affect commissioners’ decision on the lease. Commissioners “then convened the next morning for a public vote but appeared to have previously collectively determined to approve the lease,” the lawsuit alleges.

As a result, the complaint alleges, the port failed to take final action on the lease deal in an open public meeting.

The suit seeks to overturn the lease decision and compel the port to reveal what was discussed in private. It also seeks to require the port to comply with open public meetings law by discussing a lease decision in public.

The suit cites information contained in a July 31 story by The Columbian that first revealed apparent breaches by the port of open public meetings law. That story prompted a citizen complaint, which led the state Auditor’s Office to say it will examine the port’s compliance with open meeting rules as part of the port’s next regular audit in early 2014.

In a news release Thursday, Coleman, the port’s executive director, said the port is “confident that our use of executive session was appropriate. However, because concerns have been raised, and because we’re committed to a transparent public process, the port will be presenting the lease to the commissioners during Tuesday’s (Oct. 22) meeting for deliberation and a new vote.”

As to whether the environmental groups will drop their lawsuit in light of the port’s decision to re-examine the oil lease, VandenHeuvel said: “We’re going to have to see what the port does here.”

“It’s not a solution” for the port to only vote again on the oil lease, he said. “They need to disclose what they talked about behind closed doors.” VandenHeuvel added that the port also needs to explain to the public “why it was necessary to do it in private.”

Initial 10-year lease

Port commissioners voted unanimously on July 23 to approve a lease with Tesoro and Savage. The lease, involving 42 acres, is worth $45 million to the port over an initial 10 years. It’s one of the largest financial arrangements in the history of the 100-year-old port.

Under the Tesoro-Savage plan, oil would be hauled to the port by train from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, where crude is extracted by hydraulic fracturing. The oil would be stored at the port and transferred to ships headed to U.S. refineries, which would convert the crude into transportation fuels.

The companies say the $110 million oil project will generate about 250 temporary construction jobs, 120 full-time jobs, filled mostly with local workers, and boost tax revenues for Vancouver and the state. They also say the oil terminal supports U.S. energy independence.

Opponents raise many concerns, including potential oil spills on the Columbia River, the safety of hauling oil by rail in light of July’s fiery oil train disaster in Canada, detrimental impacts on Vancouver’s waterfront redevelopment plans and the worsening of global warming.

In any case, the oil terminal lease is not a done deal. The proposal by Tesoro and Savage will undergo a yearlong examination by the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The public’s first opportunity to testify to the council is expected to occur Oct. 28 and 29.

The council will review the companies’ 872-page application, submitted on Aug. 29, and eventually make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say.