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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Local View: Vancouver firefighters oppose oil terminal plan

By Mark Johnston
Published: November 1, 2015, 6:00am

Members of the Vancouver Fire Fighters Union oppose placing the biggest exporter of crude oil on the West Coast in our community. Increasing the number of oil trains rolling into our city is a disaster waiting to happen.

As firefighters, it is our job to be prepared, to assess risk, to make difficult decisions, and when warranted, to take aggressive, decisive action. Vancouver firefighters are not risk averse. We mitigate dangerous, uncontrolled situations every day of the year.

However, we know from our collective experience that we are woefully unprepared for what this oil terminal could very well bring. An explosion or fire on an oil train or at the proposed terminal would be catastrophic for this community. We do not have the training, equipment or manpower to put out a fire of this magnitude. All we would do is deny entry and evacuate people outside the “hot zone.”

Our Fire Department was formed in 1868 in response to a catastrophic fire that devastated downtown Vancouver. The only way to fight that fire was to dynamite the buildings that were not on fire to stop the spread of the inferno. Building this terminal would be like going back to 1868 in terms of our ability to extinguish an oil terminal fire.

In the past, oil trains were sparse. As the number of trains passing through our town increases, the risk of a derailment, spill or explosion intensifies. The new terminal could more than quadruple the number of oil trains coming into Vancouver, turning 3 million gallons into 12 million gallons or more. The federal government predicted earlier this year that there would be 10 oil train derailments per year over the next 20 years. These “rolling bombs” pass through residential neighborhoods, busy commercial districts and schools in and around Vancouver.

This is not a problem for Vancouver alone. Though lawmakers are attempting to patch together piecemeal regulations to deal with the rapid increase in crude oil trains entering our communities, these ad-hoc efforts cannot ensure our safety. That is why first responders in jurisdictions across the country are coming out to say we do not have the manpower, training and equipment to deal with oil train derailments and explosions.

An explosion or fire at the proposed terminal inside the Port of Vancouver or along the rail lines would kill and injure people; people your firefighters know as neighbors, schoolchildren, port workers and friends; people we spend our working lives protecting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It would foul the air and the water in the Columbia River and destroy millions of dollars of private property unrelated to the terminal itself.

The type of crude oil that would be transported into the terminal is especially dangerous, as it contains a very high percentage of volatile compounds compared to oil extracted from places like Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. The fire would burn for days or even weeks.

Your firefighters take pride in the ability to rationally assess emergency scenes when everyone else is in panic mode. It’s what we are trained to do. It’s what we do best. It’s why you trust us. We use that same skill when it comes to public policy issues. We have studied the facts, assessed the risk versus the benefit to our community of this proposed terminal; and it’s why we are 100 percent against it.

The proposed Vancouver oil terminal creates a dangerous, unnecessary situation that puts our schoolchildren, our port workers and our neighbors in needless danger. We believe it is time for the Port of Vancouver to do the right thing and walk away from this oil terminal deal.


Mark Johnston is President of Vancouver Fire Fighters Union, IAFF Local 452.