Chris Hickey lives on three acres in Washougal, Washington with his wife, son and two massive dogs.
“We get salmon and steelhead up here in the creek. It’s one of the cool things about the house,” Hickey said while walking across a metal footbridge above the fast moving water.
The creek is surrounded by a bamboo grove so thick the leaves practically block out the sky.
“Walk out on the other side here and here we’ve got the Gorge,” Hickey said, gesturing to what could easily be a postcard image of the Columbia River Gorge. “So we’re actually in the Gorge National Scenic Area here.”
Hickey said he’s all for the proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver – even if it means more oil trains.
“I worked in Portland for a number of year. So many people work in Portland,” he said. “I would love to see more industry here in the Vancouver area. I mean, we need it for jobs.”
Hickey is certainly walking his talk.
On a typical day, Burlington Northern Santa Fe already runs somewhere between 32 and 35 trains along the tracks that cut right across Hickey’s driveway.
The company says about 2.5 are oil trains loaded with Bakken Crude from Montana and North Dakota.
From there, the trains move through the middle of Washougal on through Camas and Vancouver, before ending up at refineries in Tacoma, Anacortes, and Clatskanie, Oregon.
Energy companies Tesoro-Savage are hoping to build an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver. The project would be the largest oil-by-rail facility in the country and could ship 360,000 barrels of oil daily from the port to refineries along the West coast.
Project backers say that translates into four additional oil trains daily across Hickey’s driveway and through towns along the Columbia River.
And that’s just one oil terminal.
Others are being considered in Grays Harbor as well as a second at the Port of Vancouver.
In 2013, an oil train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying part of a town. Since then there’s been a heightened concern about just how safe it is to ship oil by rail.
“I don’t worry about it,” Hickey said.
His main complaint – if you can even call it that – is that sometimes the trains block his driveway.
“They go by a couple times a day that we notice,” he said. “You can hear them, but it’s part of our life living out here. We accept it.”
“I’d like to meet that guy because I’ve never heard anyone say that before, who lives close to the tracks,” said Brent Boger, who sits on the Washougal City Council. “I’ve never heard that.”
Boger said it’s hard to think of a city that would be more affected by additional train traffic through the Gorge than Washougal.
Beyond stopping traffic through parts of town, Boger said the city’s leaders are concerned about what might happen if there’s an accident involving an oil train.
“We’d like to know what the safety concerns are and how much our town is put at risk because of trains,” he said. “We need to know that. At least we need to know the problem, then we can see if we can get some mitigation to cover that.”
Right now, Boger said, the state’s studying how the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal might affect the city of Vancouver. He’d like to see the same thing happen in his town.
Burlington Northern is not only up to the task of delivering more crude oil, but the rail company is also well aware of the risks, said Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF.
“We take safe guards to insure that all of our traffic moves through these communities, through the environment safely,” he said. “But we do have more stringent, more strict safeguards for certain types of hazmat materials as well these oil trains that are moving through.”
Before Melonas took a job inside the office, he was a main line track inspector along the Columbia River Gorge. He knows the area well and speaks about region’s long relationship with railroads and their importance in helping towns along the tracks grow.
In fact, Melonas said his grandfather who came over from Greece helped lay the first tracks on the Washington side of the Gorge in 1907.
“There always has been a tremendous amount of respect for the railroad through the Gorge and the importance of it,” he said. “And I think it’s still there.”
Currently, the state’s energy siting council is reviewing the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal.
Ultimately, it will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee who will decide whether the project moves forward.