Friday, December 9, 2022
Dec. 9, 2022

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In Our View: Port: Let the Public Speak

Attempting to stifle public comment no way to mitigate oil terminal concerns

The Columbian

For nearly three years, efforts to bring a vast oil terminal to the Port of Vancouver have been marked by secrecy, subterfuge and shiftiness when the process would have been better served by open discussion.

So it is disappointing — but perhaps not surprising — that Port of Vancouver Commissioner Jerry Oliver tried to cut off public comment before it started at Tuesday’s commission meeting. “They don’t come down to talk. They come down to protest,” Oliver, the commission president, said of terminal opponents.

Certainly, there is a time and place for public comment, and that time and place for the port commission usually is at the start of the organization’s biweekly meetings. When Oliver attempted to bypass the public comment portion of the meeting — apparently forgetting that, as an elected official, he works for the public — fellow Commissioners Brian Wolfe and Eric LaBrant pushed for the public to have its say. Oliver attempted to invoke his power as board president, but Wolfe retorted, “We didn’t elect you to shut down public comment.”

Most likely, Oliver has had an earful regarding the proposed oil terminal. In 2013, the Port of Vancouver reached an agreement with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. — now working in conjunction as Vancouver Energy — to build and operate the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil terminal. Oliver was on the board when officials approved the idea, and he has remained a staunch proponent of the terminal.

Because of that, Oliver has heard from plenty of critics. The terminal proposal has generated unprecedented levels of feedback as it has moved through the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council process, and opponents routinely have outnumbered proponents at public hearings on the terminal. Most recently, port commissioners presided over a daylong hearing on April 12 that was triggered by proposed changes to the lease agreement. Despite a majority of testimony against the terminal, commissioners later approved the lease changes when they could have terminated the agreement.

So it is somewhat understandable if Oliver has had enough public comment related to the oil terminal — except for the fact that it is his job. As one speaker said when the public got its say at last week’s meeting, “it’s bad enough you don’t listen to us when we speak, and now you want to silence us.”

Such an attempt is unconscionable for an elected public official, yet it fits a disturbing pattern that has marked the entire process. As The Columbian has detailed, the agreement with Tesoro and Savage initially was conceived and developed under an unscrupulous veil of secrecy; public documents related to the terminal have been slow to be released and often have been heavily redacted; pamphlets distributed to the public by Tesoro and Savage often have contained grossly inaccurate information; and the companies’ draft environmental impact statements have been criticized by state regulators for being woefully inadequate.

For many reasons, the proposal and the lengthy vetting process have generated distrust and suspicion from the public. Such traits are not acceptable when the plan is to bring 15 million gallons of crude oil each day down the Columbia River Gorge and through heavily populated areas. Such traits are not acceptable when the plan could impact Clark County’s quality of life.

Attempting to shut down regularly scheduled public comment is no way to mitigate these concerns. The public deserves better from Jerry Oliver.