The companies proposing what would be the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil transfer terminal on Thursday showed off new reinforced oil rail cars that exceed new federal standards at an invitation-only event at the Port of Vancouver, in their most direct response to public concerns about safety issues related to the terminal.
At the same time, officials with Vancouver Energy — the Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. partnership that is proposing the oil terminal at the port — released the results of a new poll showing that 68 percent of registered voters in Clark County support building the oil terminal.
A big reason for that support is “the economic benefits” the project will bring, Jared Larrabee, vice president and general manager for Savage, told at least 60 attendees during Thursday’s media event, where the crowd included port leaders, BNSF Railway officials, members of local business groups and others. The event featured brief speeches and question-and-answer sessions.
The trains on display exceed new federal rules imposed amid public concerns about a string of oil train accidents, some of which caused explosions. Nathan Savage, senior vice president and group leader for Utah-based Savage, which would operate the oil terminal, touted the company’s strong safety record across different states. “Safety is at the heart of integrity,” he said.
Opponents of the oil terminal pushed back on multiple fronts. They said at a nearby protest site and in interviews that neither the new federal regulations nor the limited number of Tesoro’s new rail cars go far enough to protect the public. Some critics questioned the invitation-only nature of Thursday’s event, which took place at the port’s Terminal 5, where rail tracks would be used as part of the oil-handling facility’s operations.
At least 20 people gathered along and on either side of the nearby Northwest Gateway Avenue overpass for peaceful protests. Members of the Vancouver Police Department were on hand. Don Steinke, a Vancouver resident, held a sign that listed a number of opponents of the oil terminal, including the city of Vancouver, tribal and faith groups, and the Washougal School District.
Steinke said oil tank cars, including Tesoro’s new ones, are resistant to punctures only at much lower speeds than are now allowed, including trains traveling into east Clark County. “It’s beyond time to address climate change,” Steinke added. “We can’t fight climate change by building more fossil fuel terminals.”
Thursday’s event also arrived during a political campaign pitting a backer of the oil terminal, Lisa Ross, and an opponent of it, Eric LaBrant, in a race to succeed port commissioner Nancy Baker in the November general election.
The companies invited Ross to attend Thursday’s event. They did not invite LaBrant. Jennifer Minx, a spokeswoman for Tesoro, said she didn’t know why LaBrant, who heads the neighborhood association for Fruit Valley, which borders the port, wasn’t invited because she wasn’t part of developing the guest list.
Representatives of the Fruit Valley Foundation and Fruit Valley Elementary School were invited, Marx said. To Ross, Thursday’s event was a matter of the companies reaching out to the community to explain how they’re boosting oil train safety. As to LaBrant not being invited to the event, Ross said: “It’s not my guest list, and he’s been fighting them at every turn.” Tesoro and BNSF Railway are among Ross’ financial backers in this year’s campaign.
LaBrant said the Fruit Valley neighborhood “has tried to work with Tesoro on making measurable safety improvements and has been ignored.” That the event was closed to the general public also reflects poorly on the port’s “commitment to openness and collaboration with the community,” said LaBrant, whose financial backers in the campaign include the local unit of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, members of which joined the protest of Thursday’s event.
Thursday’s event followed an announcement by Tesoro in May that it was upgrading its crude oil rail car fleet by adding 210 enhanced tank cars that exceed the standards the U.S. Department of Transportation issued that month.
At the port, the company displayed several of those new DOT 120 rail cars. The tank cars meet the new federal standards — known as the DOT 117 design — the companies, said, with a thicker tank shell, full-height head shields, a tank jacket and upgraded bottom outlet valve handle. But the rail cars also have features that exceed the federal standards, the companies said, including a thicker tank head, both thermal protection and a high-flow pressure relief valve, protective housing for the manway and two times the rated tank test pressure.
Tesoro has said it has phased out all of its DOT 111 cars, known to have flaws, from carrying crude oil. It also has said it will accept only safer, post-October 2011 cars — also known as CPC 1232s — or better at the oil terminal proposed at the port.
However, while the CPC 1232 design offers more protection, the National Transportation Safety Board says that design fails to offer significant safety improvements. Several of the recent oil train disasters involved CPC 1232 rail cars.
Larrabee said Thursday new rail cars must meet the tighter federal rules and that “we’ll continue to push (the) envelope to move toward safer cars.” John Hack, manager of rail operations at Tesoro, declined to provide a full breakdown of the rail cars in the company’s fleet, calling such information commercially sensitive. But he said more than 50 percent of Tesoro’s fleet of rail cars “will be jacketed.”
In addition to setting a tougher tank car design, the new federal standards allow existing tank cars to carry crude oil but require retrofitting and phasing out older models over time. Retrofitting deadlines depend on the car type and the category of flammable cargo carried.
The new federal standards were criticized by oil industry groups as being too costly to justify the safety benefits. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board, environmentalists and members of the public have criticized the new federal rules as not going far enough.
Parties on both sides of the issue have filed legal challenges to the new rules. Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice who represents multiple groups that oppose the oil terminal, said that Tesoro’s adding of 210 reinforced rail cars is “all well and good.’ But Boyles, who is challenging the new federal tank car rules in court on behalf of Earthjustice, said the Port of Vancouver oil terminal would receive four unit trains per day — trains that not only would include existing flawed tank cars that still need to be retrofitted or phased out, but also the “new (tank cars) designed and built under (the) wholly inadequate (new) federal standards.”
A unit train can have a chain of at least 100 rail cars, all of which carry the same bulk commodity.
There are “a lot of cars coming in that aren’t going to be these better cars,” Boyles said.
Although Thursday’s event was a private, invitation-only gathering, at least one member of a Vancouver group that opposes the oil terminal took part in the gathering.
Jim Luce of Taxpayers for a Responsible Public Port, which has publicly endorsed LaBrant in his campaign for the port commission, said Vancouver Energy’s Larrabee offered an invitation to members of the Taxpayers group after the two men discussed the event over coffee on Wednesday.
The poll released by the companies Thursday was conducted by Portland-based firm DHM Research. The telephone survey, taken between June 18 and 25, involved 400 registered voters in Clark County. It found that 68 percent of respondents favor the proposed oil terminal, compared to 31 percent opposed — a difference far beyond the poll’s 4.9 percent margin of error.
The numbers are similar to another poll released by the companies last year, which found 69 percent of Clark County respondents favored the terminal. In that poll, 26 percent said they opposed the project.
Addressing the new poll, C.J. Warner, Tesoro’s executive vice president of strategy and business development, said in a released statement: “The results confirm Clark County residents continue to support Vancouver Energy for the great jobs and economic value it will create.”
Tesoro and Savage submitted their building application to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council more than two years ago.
They did so after the port’s three-member commission voted unanimously, in 2013, to approve a lease for the project. The companies want to receive about 360,000 barrels of crude per day at the port. The oil would come from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. It would arrive by rail — as many as four full trains per day at full capacity. The companies say the crude would then be transferred to marine vessels and sent down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.
Several delays have pushed the release of the oil terminal’s draft environmental impact statement until late November at the earliest.
The sweeping document is expected to offer the most detailed look yet at the proposed terminal. It also will trigger a new round of public comment. The evaluation council will eventually make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who gets the final say over whether the project gets built.