Citing threats to public safety, the head of Vancouver’s firefighters union told Port of Vancouver commissioners Tuesday that the union opposes a proposal to build the nation’s largest rail-to-ship oil-transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver.
The city is “not staffed appropriately” and “we don’t have the training, and we don’t have the equipment to effectively respond to an emergency at the oil terminal,” Mark Johnston, president of the Vancouver Firefighters Union IAFF Local 452, told port commissioners during the port’s regular public meeting. The meeting was packed with opponents of the oil terminal (one attendee spoke favorably about the terminal) who blasted the port for hiding information from people and ignoring their safety concerns. Critics also urged the port to cancel its lease with Tesoro Corp., a petroleum refiner, and Savage Cos., a transportation company, in the face of a string of explosive oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada.
“We’re not risk-averse,” said Johnston, whose union represents about 185 firefighters with the city and Clark County Fire District 5. “But we understand a disaster down here would be catastrophic,” not only for the community, and the port and its neighbors, “but for the first responders as well.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina said his formal position on an oil terminal at the port is the same as that of the Vancouver City Council, which opposes the project and has imposed a moratorium on establishing or expanding crude oil-handling facilities in the city.
But regardless of what happens with the oil terminal, oil trains already are running through Vancouver, he noted. “The risk appears to be here to stay, so let’s try to get our arms around how much of a risk it is to our jurisdiction,” he said.
Molina said a consultant is conducting a gap analysis of the fire department to determine whether it has adequate training, equipment, staffing and resources to respond effectively to various oil train derailment scenarios.
“I think there’s a gap, frankly,” Molina said. “I just don’t know how big it is.”
None of the three commissioners responded to what Johnston or others said about the oil terminal during the open forum portion of the public meeting, which grew tense at times. Opponents waved anti-oil terminal signs and applauded after people made remarks to commissioners. At one point, Commissioner Nancy Baker said that continued applause “just means we’re going to be here a lot longer.”
After opponents had their say, and the port had moved on to other items on its agenda, port CEO Todd Coleman said state regulators are expected to release the oil terminal’s draft environmental impact statement for public review and comment on Nov. 24. He said people are “waiting anxiously to see what the document looks like” and to review the potential impacts and recommendations to soften those impacts.
The announcement by the firefighters union and the criticisms renewed by opponents mark the latest public dust-up over the oil terminal. Port commissioners voted unanimously, in 2013, to approve a lease for the project. Tesoro and Savage, operating as Vancouver Energy, want to receive by rail about 360,000 barrels of crude per day at the port. The companies say the crude would then be transferred to marine vessels and sent down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.
The proposed oil terminal is undergoing an environmental impact analysis by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The evaluation council will eventually recommend approval or denial of the project to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who gets the final say over whether the project gets built.
‘Still a disaster’
An estimated 17 people spoke to the commission against the oil terminal, including John Karpinski, an attorney and member of Clark County Natural Resources Council.
Karpinski, citing a recent news report by Oregon Public Broadcasting, said the port can walk away now from the oil terminal lease. In that report, a Tesoro spokeswoman was quoted as saying there’s no penalty if the port or Vancouver Energy decided to get out of the lease before the Aug. 1, 2016, deadline for the companies to secure the necessary permits to build the oil terminal.
And the port should rescind the lease, Karpinski said, given the risks to public safety and the potentially massive liability costs to taxpayers if an oil train disaster occurs. Meanwhile, he said, the risks are potentially greater in light of new lease details the port divulged as part of a recent legal settlement. The lease disclosures include that the companies have the ability to expand or build a second oil-by-rail facility if they exceed handling an average of 400,000 barrels of crude per day with the first terminal.
The crude oil market is crashing, Karpinski added, and “we’re tying ourselves to a dying industry.”
Linda Garcia, who’s lived nearly 20 years in the Fruit Valley neighborhood, which borders the port, said the port commissioners made a bad decision when they first approved the oil terminal lease on July 23, 2013. Then they “made the mistake again” when they held a second public meeting in October of that year — out of concerns that the port had violated the state’s open public meetings law with the first vote — and re-approved the contract. By that time, she said, commissioners knew the risks. “You chose profit and greed above livability and, most importantly, above humanity,” Garcia said.
Ryan Rittenhouse, conservation organizer for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said that even if it operated free of oil train explosions and oil spills for 50 years, the oil terminal facility “is still a disaster.” That’s because the “continued reliance on fossil fuels is a disaster in and of itself,” he said.
Royce Pollard, former mayor of Vancouver, said information about the oil terminal that commissioners should have shared with the public has come to light only in reports by The Columbian and by the efforts of various civic groups. He added that “most of us (have the) impression that you know what’s best for us, and you don’t really give a crap about our concerns. Whether you like it or not, you have failed your citizens, and we will never forgive.”
In a news release issued by the Vancouver Firefighters Union Local 452, the union, citing a report by National Geographic magazine, said that in 2014 “there were 143 oil train incidents resulting in 57,600 gallons of spilled oil and at least 47 deaths.”
During his testimony Tuesday, Johnston, the firefighters union president, said that if an oil train disaster occurred, firefighters “wouldn’t be able to actively put a fire out.” Instead, they’d have to cordon off the area, evacuate people “and make sure that disaster didn’t move forward and consume” areas near it.
Johnston also said: “The risk is not worth the benefit.”
Staff writer Amy M.E. Fischer contributed to this story.