NuStar Energy’s plans to handle crude oil at the Port of Vancouver must undergo a detailed environmental review, a city hearings examiner decided Tuesday.
The ruling affirms an earlier decision by the city that NuStar must complete an environmental impact statement before it can get a permit.
The sweeping document would provide a thorough look at the proposal and its potential effects. It would also explore alternatives and invite new testimony. NuStar had argued that the project should not require an environmental impact statement, and that the city’s justification for requiring it was flawed.
Hearings examiner Sharon Rice disagreed, ruling in favor of the city. The announcement was immediately cheered by environmental groups and oil-by-rail opponents.
“Oil trains are dangerous,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “We think they deserve a full review of the public safety and environmental impacts.”
NuStar has announced plans to convert its existing facility at the Port of Vancouver to handle about 22,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The site would receive oil by rail, store it temporarily, then transfer it to marine vessels on the Columbia River.
City staff determined earlier this year that NuStar’s proposal must undergo a detailed environmental review. The company appealed that decision, and the case went before a hearings examiner in August. Two days of testimony included a parade of citizens, mostly against the proposal, who called for a broad review of the plan.
NuStar respects the hearings examiner’s decision, but is “disappointed” in the ruling, said company spokesman Chris Cho. NuStar believes all safety and environmental concerns were addressed when the company secured a permit last year from the Southwest Clean Air Agency, he said.
“Our top priority is safety, and we are taking all appropriate measures to ensure that this proposed rail project is designed, built and operated safely,” Cho said in an email. “In addition, our Vancouver terminals have an outstanding safety and environmental record, and NuStar has an industry-leading safety record. We will continue working cooperatively with the city of Vancouver while weighing our options to determine the best way to move forward with the project.”
NuStar has leased property from the port since 2006. The company has handled methanol, jet fuel, antifreeze and other products in Vancouver before, but not crude oil.
Requiring an environmental impact statement would trigger a lengthy public process for a project that has been overshadowed by a separate, much bigger proposal at the port. Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies are pursuing an oil-transfer terminal that, if built, would be the largest oil-by-rail facility in the United States. That project would handle an average of 360,000 barrels per day. It’s currently being reviewed by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
NuStar’s environmental impact statement will likely take several months to prepare, said Jon Wagner, a senior planner with the city. Once a draft is released, people will be able to submit comments before the final document is compiled.
It’s rare for a project in the city’s jurisdiction to warrant a full environmental impact statement, Wagner said. It’s also rare for an applicant to appeal that determination before the review even begins in earnest, he said.
Wagner noted that the main decision on the NuStar project — whether or not the city grants a permit — has not been made.
“An EIS doesn’t kill a project,” Wagner said, nor is it intended to.
But opponents still hope that’s the eventual outcome.
“We’ll encourage the city to complete a thorough review of the project … and ultimately encourage the city to deny the oil terminal,” VandenHeuvel said.