Days away from the Nov. 3 general election, the two candidates competing for a shot at helping run the Port of Vancouver once again offered voters a palpable choice. This time, the contrasts between Eric LaBrant and Lisa Ross on economic development policy, public safety and whether the port’s governance needs improvement flared up during a packed town hall debate held Monday night at Washington State University Vancouver.
LaBrant and Ross, running for the District 2 seat on the port’s three-member commission, delivered opening and closing remarks during the event that was hosted by the Young Democrats at WSUV. The candidates also fielded pointed questions from the audience during an event moderated by Mark Stephan, associate professor for WSUV.
Here are some highlights of Monday night’s wide-ranging town hall debate, which grew tense and emotional at times.
LaBrant and Ross are on opposite sides of a proposal to build the nation’s largest rail-to-ship oil-transfer terminal at the port. Tesoro Corp., a petroleum refiner, and Savage Cos., a transportation company, want to receive about 360,000 barrels of crude per day at the port.
LaBrant opposes the oil-handling facility. Ross favors it.
Ross said she’s “a big believer in American ingenuity and American jobs and the American worker” and that “if we see a problem, we can fix it.” If the oil terminal is approved by state regulators, she said, that will mean it meets all safety standards. “We should be able to profit from that, from having the jobs here,” Ross said.
If the oil terminal fails to materialize, Ross said, “I would not mind going after another energy-sector tenant like coal.”
LaBrant said he would oppose a coal terminal. As to the oil terminal, he said, “I don’t, at this point, have any reason to believe that the safety concerns will be addressed in any reasonable fashion. That’s why we’re seeing trains fall off the tracks and blow up.”
Instead of the oil terminal, LaBrant said, the region should focus on growth industries such as advanced manufacturing, 3-D printing, solar panels and the export of American-made goods. “Those kinds of businesses need space as well,” he said.
LaBrant noted that Vancouver’s firefighters union, which is among the endorsers of his candidacy, opposes the oil terminal as a public safety threat. The opposition of the firefighters union, which represents about 185 firefighters, is based “in part because it’s already strapped,” LaBrant said.
The oil facility isn’t here yet, Ross said, and by the end of the review process, the firefighters will get what they need. “There is a lot of training that will happen between now and when this terminal hopefully opens,” she said.
Ross’s endorsers include the current District 2 commissioner, Nancy Baker, who decided against seeking a third, six-year term.
“It’s important to note that this oil, though it is flammable, it is not explosive,” Ross said, adding that the crude would need pressure or an impact to explode. “That’s the way it’s placarded in the Department of Transportation. It’s placarded as flammable and not as explosive.”
By way of context, an analysis by federal regulators last year found that Bakken crude “has a higher gas content, higher vapor pressure, lower flash point and boiling point and thus a higher degree of volatility than most other crudes in the U.S., which correlates to increased ignitability and flammability.”
The analysis also said: “Given Bakken crude oil’s volatility, there is an increased risk of a significant incident involving this material due to the significant volume that is transported, the routes and the extremely long distances it is moving by rail.”
The port’s governance came up during the town hall debate. The port’s current administration and commissioners have come under continuous public criticism and litigation for their use of closed-door executive sessions to discuss the lease for the oil terminal.
“Our responsibility as elected officials is to the taxpayers,” LaBrant said. He said he’d “like to take a good, strong look at the use of executive session,” which the state’s open public meetings law allows only for limited purposes.
“What did the port commissioners do that was so awful?” Ross said. She described the port’s support for deepening the Columbia River channel and other efforts to attract business, including Vancouver Energy, the partnership of Tesoro and Savage. The port deserves “more respect than they’ve been getting, I will tell you that,” Ross said.