science environment

Local Concerns And A New Permit For Oregon's Largest Oil By Rail Terminal

By Tony Schick (OPB)
Aug. 19, 2014 7:53 p.m.
The Oregon Department of Environmental issued a new air quality permit today to the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, an oil train terminal at Port Westward near Clatskanie, Oregon.

The Oregon Department of Environmental issued a new air quality permit today to the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, an oil train terminal at Port Westward near Clatskanie, Oregon.

Sam Beebe/Flickr


The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality approved a new air quality permit Tuesday for Oregon's largest oil train terminal in Clatskanie and received roughly 1,400 comments in the process.

A lot of them, based on the samples provided by DEQ, read similarly to this:

Expanding the oil terminal at Port Westward will bring more oil trains to this location. I urge you to spare the Pacific Northwest from certain oil spills and train derailings, and possible explosions.

To which DEQ responds:

In making a determination on whether or not to issue an order to cease operations DEQ must consider impacts related to air quality. This assessment does not include train or rail safety considerations.

That comment and response (see all of them here) touches on one of the most contentious issues surrounding oil trains, one causing frustrations for regulators and playing a prominent role in the recent top-to-bottom safety review from Gov. John Kitzhaber's office: Local communities feel they bear the risks, but local authority to regulate is severely limited.


The air quality permit is a good example of this.

Beyond broader concerns over climate change, local air quality isn’t an issue typically associated with oil trains, which have grabbed headlines for spills and explosions. But the permit for the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery was thrust into the spotlight when DEQ issued a $117,000 fine and claimed the facility was in violation of its permit. The terminal, which despite its name is not actually a refinery, moved 300 million gallons of oil from rail cars onto ships bound for West Coast refineries last year. It was permitted for 50 million gallons.

In the enforcement notice, DEQ explained that in June of 2012 it swiftly approved a permit change for the facility to switch from handling ethanol to crude oil. That happened a year before the deadly oil train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec, which was followed by a string of other spills and explosions involving oil by rail.

That change — which DEQ deemed "insignificant" and "incidental" in terms of air quality permitting — paved the way for oil trains through Oregon largely because no other permitting from state or local authorities was required. The facility filed a spill response plan with the state (also approved Tuesday), but it deals almost exclusively with the facility's storage and loading of marine vessels, whether oil is reaching the terminal by train or not.

That the terminal’s new permit was approved is no surprise. Months ago, even as the facility was in violation of its old permit, DEQ indicated the agency would approve the new one.

"The facility can legally conduct their operations as they're doing now, they just need a permit to do it from DEQ," said Jenny Root, an environmental law specialist with the agency, at the time.

The new permit allows the facility to handle just over 1.8 billion gallons per year, a significant increase from 50 million that in all likelihood would require more than double the oil train traffic currently moving through towns like Scappoose, St. Helens and Rainier. It would also allow the terminal to handle ethanol. It was originally built as an ethanol plant but went bankrupt and was later purchased by Global Partners LP for use in crude oil storage and loading.

Oil train train traffic through those communities depends on more than just the DEQ air quality permit, though. A resolution from the Port of St. Helens allows the terminal to increase train traffic, estimated at around 17 trains per month currently, if a host of conditions are met. One of those conditions is rail improvements through the town of Rainier, where freight train tracks split the town like a downtown light rail, with stop signs where you’d typically see lighted and gated crossings.

The city has an application in with the state for funding through the Connect Oregon V subsidy program for rail improvements. Decisions are expected Friday at the meeting of the state transportation commission.

-- Tony Schick