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Vancouver Oil Terminal Sparks Controversy, Concerns For Community


Near a dock at the Port of Vancouver where crude from the proposed oil terminal would be loaded onto ships.

Near a dock at the Port of Vancouver where crude from the proposed oil terminal would be loaded onto ships.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

In Washington’s Vancouver region, there is arguably no issue more hotly felt than the proposed Tesoro-Savage oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver. The port commission has been criticized for approving a lease to the company in 2013 without what many opponents felt was a proper public process.

Think Out Loud hosted a discussion at Torque Coffee Roasters in Vancouver where we discussed issues surrounding the proposed oil terminal, oil trains and the upcoming port commission primary election.

What was done and how it was handled?

In April 2013, the Port of Vancouver announced the development of an oil terminal. Aaron Corvin, port and economy reporter for The Columbian newspaper, has been covering the proposal and the controversy behind it.

“That was the first time people learned about it,” Corvin said. “And as it turned out a lot went on before that announcement.”

The port was said to have had “closed-door” executive meetings, which violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. Corvin said that the port is currently being sued over the issue. 

Brian Wolfe, a Port of Vancouver commissioner, said that executive sessions allow them to deal with sensitive matters, like pricing on a project.

“There is a time for the public to be brought into the process,” Wolfe said, “(For the oil terminal project) I think we did in a timely fashion. The (Columbia) Riverkeeper and other environmental groups were there right from the beginning. The general public probably doesn’t have the context that the environmental groups will have to understand what is happening.”

The controversy has drawn no less than seven candidates for an open seat on the three-member Port of Vancouver commission — a remarkably high number for this race.

The primary race has become a defacto referendum on the proposed Tesoro-Savage oil terminal.

 

Concerns about the oil terminal

There are dramatically different perspectives on the oil terminal and what what it would provide for the community. Business groups and some labor unions support the project because of the economic development and jobs that it would bring. But environmental groups and others have raised concerns about the safety of oil trains in the wake of oil-related disasters in the U.S. and Canada.

Firefighters, small business owners and other community members expressed their concerns about the unintended consequences that could accompany an oil terminal.

Dan Serres, the conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said that have been other cases where trains carrying oil have had disastrous outcomes, such as explosions.

“It’s not just the matter of the trains blowing up,” Serres said. “It’s also imagining that type of oil spill happening all the way down the Vancouver Waterfront. It just seemed like the port already made up its mind.”

Jarad Larrabee, the project manager for Tesoro-Savage, said that there is a permitting process to help ensure the oil terminal is fully evaluated and public input is provided. Host Dave Miller asked Larrabee what he would say to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who the final project approval rests with.

“Gov. Inslee certainly has made jobs and economic development a platform of what he is pushing for in the area,” Larrabee said. “We believe this project provides exactly those things. In addition to that, this project can bring a significant amount of energy independence, potentially displacing 30 percent of the crude oil that we bring in from foreign sources today. We think that is a huge benefit not just for the region, but for the nation.”

Dave Byers, the Washington State Department of Ecology oil spill planner, said the organization is working to become prepared for potential oil spills and how to keep them at a low rate. He said that the rail industry isn’t held to the same standards as other oil transporters, such as tanks and pipelines.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Byers said. “We’ve got a rule to write to define exactly what we expect from the rail industry, and then implementing that will take some time.”

Barry Cain, the president of Gramor Development, said at first he was not concerned about the oil terminal until he learned about the fatal oil accidents that have occurred over the last few years. He believes that the new waterfront development he’s working on will have a larger impact.

“The economic benefit of what we are doing and what the city has been doing out here is way, way more than what an oil terminal can bring,” Cain said. “In fact, what the oil terminal is going to bring is a distraction from it all.”

Not enough minutes in the hour

After the show, a few audience members who we weren’t able to fit into the hour, stuck around to give their comments on the proposed oil terminal and related issues.

What is next?

A Clark County judge ruled Friday on the suit addressing the port’s potential violation of Washington’s public meeting laws. The judge found that Port of Vancouver commissioners did not violate the laws. 

Washington’s primary election for the port commission is on Aug. 4. The top two candidates will move on to the general in November.

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