PORT OF VANCOUVER
Local and regional environmental groups asked the Astoria City Council Monday night to join with other Pacific Northwest cities to oppose an oil terminal they say threatens the health of the Columbia River estuary.
The Tesoro Savage oil-by-rail terminal at Washington’s Port of Vancouver, first announced in 2013, would be the largest oil-by-rail project in North America. Five mile-and-a-half long trains would carry a daily output of 360,000 barrels of crude oil. The oil would be put on oil tankers that would then cross the Columbia River Bar, according to nonprofit environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper.
The project could “dramatically increase” the danger of an oil spill on the Columbia River from trains coming into the terminal and the vessels going downstream, said Dan Serres, the group’s conservation director.
The City Council had opposed a liquefied natural gas and pipeline project in Warrenton in 2015, Serres said. He spoke Monday seeking a similar resolution, this time for the oil-by-rail project.
“That statement (in 2015) resonated statewide,” Serres said. “… It marked this area as being a place where people like to help the river.”
Vancouver, Spokane, Portland and Hood River have already spoken out against the project. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will make the final decision on whether to approve or deny the project, a decision he is expected to make sometime late this year or next year.
Of chief concern to Serres and others opposed to the project are the trains themselves.
“This is a new thing for the United States,” Serres said. “We haven’t moved oil by train in this volume ever before. In 2012, this started to ramp up. In 2013 we started to see trains derail.”
He pointed to an oil train that derailed and caught fire in Mosier, a town in the Columbia River Gorge, last year. That derailment and the small oil spill in the river that resulted was a “taste” of what could happen elsewhere, he said.
Jan Mitchell, who serves on the Astoria Planning Commission, urged the council to join the other cities in opposing the project.
“Anything that happens to the river upstream, happens to us,” she said.
City councilors asked questions and expressed concern over the safety issues, but Councilor Bruce Jones, a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander, pointed out that refined petroleum products move up and down the river at least five days a week, if not on a daily basis.
There are products the Pacific Northwest requires for its economy and industry to function, he said. If these products weren’t being moved on the river, they would be in trucks on the highways.
“I think it’s a complex issue,” he said. “Petroleum products moving on the river, it’s easy to say this is real black and white, it’s bad. But then again compared to the alternatives, it moves safely on the river now.”
The tankers that carry petroleum products or other hazardous chemicals must pass stringent regulations. When Jones was captain of the port, he said he was more worried about an oil spill from a grain ship than from a petroleum tanker. They carry massive amounts of fuel and are not maintained to the same standards required of the petroleum tankers.
“The grain business, they operate on very small margins,” Jones said, “… so some of those grain ships sitting out there are real pieces of work.”
The river is a highway, Jones said. “It’s a place of beauty and natural resources and fish and sea lions and it’s also a highway and it has been ever since before the first white people came here. It was a commercial highway.”
He said he respects the work Columbia Riverkeeper does to protect the environmental health of the river. He wants to look closely at the project’s environmental impact statement, current safety regulations related to oil tankers, and talk to the bar pilots who would be tasked with guiding these tankers back and forth across the dangerous system of sandbars at the Columbia River’s mouth before giving his approval to a resolution opposing the oil-by-rail terminal project.
City staff will work with Serres to craft a resolution to bring before the City Council in August.