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April 1, 2023

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EFSEC hearings: Oil terminal opponents have their turn

Merits, risks continue to be weighed at adjudication hearings for Vancouver Energy proposal

By , Columbian Business Reporter

The bells rang on the first round of oil terminal hearings this week as opponents started calling witnesses in the trial-like process guiding the fate of the Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. proposal.

The third week of adjudication hearings before the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council in Olympia continued the back-and-forth over the merits and risks of what would be the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil terminal, proposed at the Port of Vancouver.

“Overall, Tesoro finished their case. I feel they had presented their picture of what this facility could be or should be — nothing of great surprise,” said Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney representing a number of terminal opponents at the hearings. “I’m still left with the opinion that they don’t acknowledge as much risk as there is in a project of this sort.”

Tesoro and Savage — operating jointly as Vancouver Energy — want to build a terminal on the Columbia River capable of handling 360,000 daily barrels of crude oil via an average of four trains per day. Before that, the evaluation council needs to consider the competing expert testimony and analyses before making a recommendation on the project’s fate to the governor, who gets final say.

“The council continues to ask very good questions and be very engaged,” said Vancouver Energy general manager Jared Larrabee. “We’re confident as we go through this that they’ll be performing their role they’ve been tasked to do.”

Witnesses called by opponents this week included Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton, who testified on the oil train derailment, spill and fire outside his Oregon town last month.

“(Opponents) will be pointing out elements of his testimony that would go against the terminal; however, I think there were elements that were in favor,” Larrabee said. “Generally, he testified on the robustness of the response — and we think that’s important to point out.”

However, Appleton last month joined other Mosier officials and residents in opposing the oil terminal in front of Port of Vancouver commissioners and warning of the dangers of increased oil train traffic.

“There will be a next time if fossil fuel unit trains continue to run,” he told commissioners June 14.

Other fire officials and city staff, including Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes, took the stand this week to tell the evaluation council about emergency preparedness and “how to prepare for what (emergency planning consultant Michael Hildebrand) called the onslaught of oil trains,” Boyles said.

Larrabee said the company’s commitment to allow only newer rail cars was acknowledged as a “significant safety improvement.”

Questions were also asked Monday, the last day of proponent-called witnesses, about the nature and structure of Vancouver Energy as a company. Opponents have called Vancouver Energy a shell company, leaving the burden of paying for a catastrophic accident not with Tesoro and Savage but the public.

Characterizing insurance expert Robert Blackburn’s testimony, Boyles said: “I don’t feel comfortable with that as a risk manager.”

Blackburn estimates a catastrophic oil train accident in Vancouver, like the deadly explosions in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013, could cost up to $6 billion, The Columbian reported last month. He added there wouldn’t be an insurance policy that would cover that.

Larrabee said “We’re not at a stage in the project where we’d be securing insurance,” and he pointed to the draft environmental impact statement’s provision requiring a financial study before operations begin.

“Based on the study, (the council) shall determine the appropriate level of financial responsibility and require the applicant to demonstrate their financial responsibility to the satisfaction of (the council),” reads the environmental review.

As adjudication reaches its fourth of five weeks Monday, the evaluation council will continue playing the role of a very active jury in this case — along with lawyers cross-examining witnesses, the council of state department officials has been asking many of its own questions. But are members showing where they might eventually land on the proposal?

“They’re paying attention and not giving much away,” Boyles said. “They seem to be trying to understand each witness’s testimony.”

Columbian Business Reporter