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Port of Vancouver asks Inslee to prod regulators

Frustration grows over length of review of proposed oil terminal

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published: July 9, 2015, 12:00am
4 Photos
Port CEO,Todd Coleman attends a commission meeting at the Port of Vancouver on April 28.
Port CEO,Todd Coleman attends a commission meeting at the Port of Vancouver on April 28. Photo Gallery

Frustration over how long it’s taking to examine a proposal to build the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil transfer terminal in Vancouver reached a new level of intensity Wednesday, as the Port of Vancouver urged Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to order state regulators to produce a publicly available timetable and stick to it.

The port, which approved a lease in 2013 for the oil-handling facility, announced its action in a news release that included a Tuesday letter from port CEO Todd Coleman to Inslee. The letter takes umbrage with “continued delays” by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which is conducting an environmental impact analysis of the oil terminal, proposed to handle an average 360,000 barrels of crude per day.

In an email to The Columbian Wednesday, Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor, said “we’re still reviewing” the letter and “haven’t yet responded.” Eventually, Inslee will receive a recommendation from the evaluation council and will have the final say over whether the oil terminal gets built.

Coleman’s letter follows a similar one sent by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. — operating as Vancouver Energy and seeking to build the oil terminal — to Bill Lynch, chairman of the evaluation council. In that June 24 letter, the companies called on Lynch to step in and set a “firm timeline” for the council’s entire review process and to demand that the council’s staff and consultants comply with that timeline. The companies’ letter expressed frustration with the news that the oil terminal’s draft environmental impact analysis won’t be published for public review and comment until Nov. 24. That new timeline contrasts with earlier indications that the extensive document would be ready this summer. The entire review process began nearly two years ago when Tesoro and Savage applied to build the project.

For its part, the evaluation council hasn’t been quiet about the companies’ criticism. In a July 2 letter responding to the companies’ concerns about delays, the council wrote that the companies’ initial study of the oil terminal’s impacts and risks was subpar and in need of a “major rewrite.” The council also wrote that project design changes “only recently received” from the companies will need to be assessed to determine their impact on the ongoing environmental analysis.

Coleman’s letter echoes the companies’ concern that the draft environmental impact analysis won’t be published for public review and comment until late November. “This is simply unacceptable and has far-reaching consequences,” Coleman wrote.

The port CEO cites the port’s mission of economic development and the millions of dollars it’s invested in rail infrastructure at its Terminal 5 property, which would be the site of the proposed oil terminal. “Every day (the evaluation council) delays its release of the (draft impact analysis) means another day this site will not provide an economic return to the community,” Coleman wrote.

Coleman’s letter prompted criticism from Jim Luce, who was chairman of the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council from 2001 until 2013. Luce, who opposes the oil terminal, said Wednesday that the port’s decision to go directly to Inslee is “highly irregular,” given the legal nature of the evaluation council’s review process. That’s because there’s a firewall between the governor and the council, Luce said, to ensure the council completes the substance of its work without any prejudgment by the governor. “The governor is the judge,” Luce said.

‘A reasonable timeline’

In his letter, Coleman cites testimony Luce provided the port, in 2013, in which Luce described the evaluation council’s process. “Much time was spent describing how the process would provide an efficient evaluation of the proposed siting of this facility,” Coleman wrote. “There was also a detailed discussion of timelines and the statutory requirement for (the evaluation council) to complete the process within 12 months.”

By way of context, state law requires the evaluation council to reach a recommendation to Washington’s governor within 12 months of receiving a building application. However, the law also allows deadline extensions, which are not unusual given the size and complexity of major energy facility proposals.

Historically, and for practical reasons, Luce said Wednesday, “it’s never taken 12 months.”

Coleman’s letter marks a shift in the tone of the port’s public remarks about the evaluation council’s process and about its relationship to Tesoro and Savage during that process. In February 2014, for example, Theresa Wagner, a port spokeswoman at the time, told The Columbian that while the port thinks “there’s enough merit” for the proposed oil terminal to go through the evaluation council’s review process, the port is the potential landlord, not the advocate. It’s Tesoro and Savage’s job to “prove to us that it’s safe and good,” Wagner said.

Also last year, port Commissioner Brian Wolfe urged opponents of the oil terminal to trust the evaluation council’s review process.

In Coleman’s letter, the port CEO wrote that the port “still believes the (evaluation council) process is the most comprehensive review process available to consider the impacts of siting these regionally significant facilities.” However, Coleman went on, if the council “is not able to complete reviews in accordance with its statutory requirement or even within a reasonable timeline, the council’s effectiveness is diminished and the process is fatally flawed.”

Tesoro and Savage submitted their application to build the oil terminal on Aug. 29, 2013. Once the evaluation council makes a recommendation, the governor has another 60 days to accept or reject the proposal or send it back to the council.

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter