Washougal’s elected officials and school district leaders are presenting a united front against the increase of crude oil train traffic through the small city.
This week, both the city council and the school board adopted resolutions expressing grave concerns about the potential for spills, explosions and other major threats to safety through the Columbia River Gorge. The statements come the month before the state Department of Ecology is set to finish a study on whether crude oil can be safely transferred by rail throughout Washington.
The oil-by-rail facility proposed for the Port of Vancouver would be the largest oil terminal in the country, handling a daily average of 360,000 barrels of crude oil, the equivalent of four trains. Few sites throughout the state act as stopping points for oil trains, and Vancouver Energy, a partnership between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, is behind the plan. The site would serve as a transloading terminal to move crude oil from the railway to the ships in the Columbia River.
The proposal remains under review from the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. After Vancouver, Washougal becomes the second city in Clark County to take an official stance against the terminal. Washougal also became the first local school district to do the same.
Washougal has already experienced an influx of oil train traffic as oil-by-rail shipping has significantly picked up in recent years.
Ultimately, the Washougal City Council’s resolution gives the go-ahead for the city’s attorney to intervene in the state’s site evaluation process for the proposed terminal. It also states a number of concerns about traffic impact mitigation, and the need for an incident response plan and greater training and equipment for oil train emergencies.
The council’s resolution passed with unanimous support at a sparsely attended meeting. Mayor Sean Guard and councilors Joyce Lindsay and Connie Jo Freeman were absent. Jennifer McDaniel excused herself out of concern for a potential conflict of interest, considering that her husband has ties to the railroad.
Meanwhile, the Washougal School District urged Gov. Jay Inslee to stop oil-by-rail traffic throughout the state until the Department of Ecology has finished its safety study. The district also asked Congress and the Legislature to establish regulations that would provide more transparency for the contents of oil trains and the frequency and duration of their trips through the area.
HOQUIAM, Wash. — Grays Harbor, with its deep-water berths and fast access to Pacific Ocean shipping routes, has all the ingredients to be a world-class port.
In some respects, it already is. The Port of Grays Harbor once bustled with shipments of lumber from nearby forests. Next came cars, grains and biofuel. Now, local leaders are warming up to the idea of adding crude oil to the mix.
Roughly 3 billion gallons of crude move from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota into Washington state by rail each year. As oil companies look for the fastest and most cost-effective way to get their product to West Coast refineries, proposals for new oil facilities are popping up around the region.
Washington has five refineries. Four are already receiving oil by rail and the fifth is seeking a permit to do so as well. There are six proposed train-to-ship oil facilities in Washington and two operating on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.
Three of those facilities could be built in Grays Harbor. That could mean more than 700 ships and barges arriving and departing each year and eight oil trains, empty and full, traveling through Grays Harbor County each day.
The proposed facilities present the community with some hard questions about economic growth, environmental risk and quality of life.
Oil On The Move
Forty-five permanent jobs would be created at the proposed Imperium and Westway terminals, with 103 estimated jobs in rail and marine operations, according to a report from the terminal companies. Information on the potential job creation for the third, and largest, of the proposed terminals is not yet available. That terminal is backed by US Development Group. It is in the discussion phase, according to the State Department of Ecology.
“These are projects that will provide jobs and economic development and tax revenue for Grays Harbor,” said Paul Queary, spokesman for Westway and Imperium. “They will help support the existing refinery jobs elsewhere in Washington and they will bring domestically produced oil to U.S. refineries and help maintain and increase U.S. energy independence.”
Imperium and Westway plan to move North Dakota crude on to refineries on the West Coast. U.S. law prohibits the export of domestically-produced crude oil. However, there’s no such restriction on exporting crude brought in from Canada. Canadian crude is already moving through the region and more could travel through new terminals in the future.
Canadian oil producers are eager to find ways to ship their product beyond North America, suggests Tom Kluza, global head of energy analysis for Oil Price Information Service.
“Really the biggest losers in the oil price slide have been the Canadians,” he said. “They are compromised by their inability to move that to any customers beyond the U.S.”
Despite the recent drop in oil prices, Kluza said the development of infrastructure needed to serve the oil boom in the North American interior — ports, rail capacity and pipelines — is lagging behind the rate of oil production. Canadian and U.S. oil producers need access to refineries and terminals in the Northwest, and the regional refineries need access to their product, particularly as output from Alaskan oil fields continues to decline.
“Whether [the Northwest is] the most hospitable is going to depend on the way the local communities and regulators look at the environmental consequences,” he said.
‘What’s a culture worth?’
Thousands of Dungeness crabs rustle and clack as they’re unloaded from the holds of fishing vessels at the Quinault Indian Nation’s docks in Westport, at the mouth of Grays Harbor.
Dungeness crab being unloaded at the Quinault Indian Nation docks in Westport, Washington. Almost a quarter of the tribe is employed in the fishing industry. Ashley Ahearn/KUOW
The Quinault reservation lies just north of Grays Harbor. Tribal members harvest crab and razor clams along the coast and catch salmon in the ocean and the Chehalis and Humptulips rivers. The tribe opposes the oil terminals. It says an oil spill from a ship or train could close shellfish beds or decimate fish populations. Almost a quarter of the tribe’s 2,900 members are employed in the fishing industry. Ed Johnstone, fishery policy spokesman for the tribe, says the value of that fishery to the Quinault is impossible to quantify.
“What’s a culture worth? What’s a history and tradition worth?” he asked. “You can’t put a number on it.”
The Quinault tribe says its treaty-protected fishing rights are threatened by the risk of an oil spill. Its leaders say they’ll take legal action if necessary to protect the tribe’s fishery.
Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, says her tribe’s opposition isn’t just about the threat of an oil spill. The global burning of fossil fuels threatens the Quinault’s way of life, she said. Rising sea levels have forced the tribe to move part of its community inland. Last year the ocean broke through and flooded the lower village. The Olympic Mountain’ Anderson Glacier, which feeds the Quinault River, has almost disappeared.
A 1936 photo of Anderson Glacier, which feeds the Quinault River. Asahel Curtis
Anderson glacier in 2004. “Our glacier’s gone,” said Fawn Sharp, president of Quinault Nation. Matt Hoffman / Portland State University
“Each area and each region has, I believe, a sacred trust and a sacred duty,” Sharp said, standing beside tribal crabbers as they unloaded their catch. “When you are an elected official you need to make decisions that are based not only on the economics of a decision but the science, the culture, the history.”
Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, stands on the docks as tribal crabbers unload their catch. The tribe has vowed to fight the oil train-to-ship terminals proposed for Grays Harbor. Ashley Ahearn/KUOW
The Quinault and other area tribes have often been at odds with non-tribal fishermen. But the non-tribal fishing industry, which employs more than 1,000 people in the area, has joined the tribes in opposing the oil terminals.
‘If I hear one more time that this place has great potential, I’m going to puke’
The population of Grays Harbor County hovers around 70,000. Its working-class economy was built on the timber and fishing industries. But today the unemployment rate is higher than the national average. The percentage of residents with a college education lags below the state average.
More than 200 people lost their jobs when Harbor Paper in Hoquiam, Washington shut down in 2014. Ashley Ahearn / KUOW
Al Carter has spent his entire life in Grays Harbor, working in the timber and manufacturing industries and serving as a county commissioner for eight years. He calls himself “an infrastructure guy” – always pushing for the things that make a community appealing to business development and economic growth.
“Sewer, water, roads, bridges, railroads, public safety, public transportation,” Carter counts out on his fingers. “Those are the things that make a community grow and if you build those things, then people will come to those places.”
Carter says it’s been a bumpy ride since the timber and paper industry here crashed. A few years ago the Port of Grays Harbor was courted by the coal industry to build an export terminal.
“If I hear one more time that this place has great potential, I’m going to puke,” Carter said, chuckling. “A new group of people come to town every year with a good idea, like, ‘Here’s what we should do!’ and my eyes roll back in my head. It’s like, ‘yeah, OK. Here’s your bucket and your shovel.’”
Carter’s not anti-oil or fossil fuels. He’s concerned about what hundreds of oil trains and ships each year will do to the identity of his community and its potential for future development.
“That much oil, all we’re going to be is an oil terminal. They’re going to dominate our landscape,” Carter said. “Nothing else is going to come here. Nobody else is going to want to come here. There won’t be any room for anything else.”
The site where Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build the Northwest’s largest oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver is appropriately zoned for such a purpose, the state panel reviewing the proposal decided Tuesday.
But that doesn’t mean the companies will be allowed to launch a rail-and-river operation handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day at the Port of Vancouver, according to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
During its regular public meeting in Olympia that was accessible by telephone, the evaluation council voted 8 to 1 to settle what it described as a very narrow question: Does the city’s heavy industrial zone at the port allow for such uses as the oil transfer terminal proposed by Tesoro and Savage?
And while the evaluation council answered “yes,” it also went to great lengths to point out that the question of whether the companies should actually get to build and operate their project is far from settled.
Approval of a narrow land-use consistency matter “does not, by any means, translate into an approval of the proposed project,” Bill Lynch, chairman of the evaluation council, said Tuesday.
The council’s decision was unfavorable to the city of Vancouver. The city had asked the council to put off deciding the land-use consistency issue until the analysis of the oil terminal’s environmental impacts is finished. Bryan Snodgrass, principal planner for the city who was appointed to serve on the evaluation council during the review of the Tesoro-Savage proposal, cast the lone “no” vote Tuesday.
At the same time, the evaluation council’s decision enables the companies to take another small step forward in a slow, grinding environmental-impact review process that looks like it will stretch on further.
Although state law says the evaluation council has one year to make its recommendation on a large energy-project proposal — and gives Gov. Jay Inslee another 60 days to accept, reject or send the proposal back to the council — the law also provides for extensions.
During the hearing, Sonia Bumpus, a specialist for the evaluation council, said the Tesoro-Savage permit application, filed in late August, is nearing its one-year anniversary. A lot more work needs to be done, she said, so more time will be needed.
The evaluation council also agreed to put language in its land-use consistency approval making it clear that people may still raise numerous concerns about the proposed oil terminal, including everything from potential oil spills and fire risks to negative impacts on neighborhoods and city services.
The language was included in response to remarks by Snodgrass, who said he had concerns with an “unqualified” finding that the Tesoro-Savage proposal fits the city’s zoning rules. Other evaluation council members agreed, saying the zoning approval should be construed narrowly and not taken as a dismissal of environmental-impact and community concerns.
The council’s decision followed a May 28 hearing during which it heard arguments over the land-use consistency issue.
Jay Derr, an attorney for Tesoro and Savage, had argued the land-use issue was a housekeeping matter. The evaluation council should allow the companies and the public to move immediately onto the project’s environmental impact statement, he said.
The city argued otherwise, saying the oil terminal doesn’t automatically comply with the city’s land-use rules and policies. It’s not possible for the city or the evaluation council to decide the land-use matter “without knowing the full extent” of the project’s environmental impacts, Bronson Potter, city attorney for Vancouver, said.
Although the Tesoro-Savage proposal moved forward Tuesday, it still has a long way to go.
The evaluation council’s decision-making process is complex, involving multiple permit reviews, a detailed environmental-impact analysis, many opportunities for public comments and an adjudicative process where arguments fly in an atmosphere not unlike that of a trial court.
The city of Vancouver, which opposes the oil terminal, could still ask the evaluation council to reconsider signing off on the oil terminal’s compatibility with city zoning, in light of the draft environmental impact statement.
And it could present other evidence against the Tesoro-Savage proposal during hearings. Likewise, the companies will be able to push back, presenting their own arguments and evidence.
The evaluation council will eventually make a recommendation to Inslee, who has the final say. Even then, opponents could still appeal the governor’s decision to the state Supreme Court.
PORTLAND–This morning, climate justice activists with Portland Rising Tide shut down the ArcLogistics crude oil terminal in Northwest Portland.
Portland resident Irene Majorie, 22, locked herself to a 55-gallon barrel filled with concrete that was placed on the railroad track leading into the facility. Train cars enter from a nearby yard to offload oil into 84 storage tanks, before it is piped onto oceangoing ships bound for West Coast refineries.
Majorie’s arm is locked to a piece of metal rebar embedded in the Attempts by law enforcement to move her and the barrel simultaneously would likely result in grave injury; likewise, any train traffic would threaten her life.
Irene Majorie this morning
“This is about stopping the oil trains,” said Majorie. “But beyond that, it is about an industry and an economic system that places the pursuit of profit before the lives and relationships of human beings seeking survival
and nourishment, and before the communities, ecosystems, and planet of which we are a part.”
Oil trains are coming under increasing scrutiny recently owing to their propensity to derail in fiery explosions. Portland Rising Tide, however, disputes the notion that an oil train is ever safe, since crude oil is only transported to be burned. Whatever the risk of explosion, the guaranteed result is a worsening of the climate crisis, which is already wreaking ecological havoc and claiming human lives.
US crude oil production has risen from ~5 million barrels per day in the late 2000s to ~7 million barrels per day currently. Increased extraction is North Dakota’s Bakken Shale has resulted in a dramatic rise in oil train traffic, with 250% more oil trains traveling Oregon rail lines in 2013 than in the previous year. Governor Kitzhaber has expressed “deep concern” about oil trains but thus far done nothing to stop them.
“Society should be engaged in a rapid, radical decline in fossil fuel use,” said David Bennett. “Instead, policymakers—even those who claim to understand the magnitude of the climate crisis—are forcing us to engage in an absurd conversation about creating ‘safe’ oil trains and building more fossil fuel infrastructure.”
The ArcLogistics terminal, which began operation in January, is one piece of infrastructure facilitating increased oil production. When ongoing construction is completed, the facility will have the capacity to transport 16,250 barrels of oil per day.
In April, Portland Rising Tide entered the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s offices in downtown Portland, issued termination letters to employees at their desks, and announced the formation of a new People’s Agency, which would carry out DEQ’s mandate free of corporate influence. This is the first enforcement action of the nascent agency.
“If our policymakers listened, we would demand an immediate halt to oil train traffic in Oregon and the closure of all crude oil terminals,” said Emma Gould. “Since they don’t, we’re halting oil trains ourselves.”
Activists at the ArcLogistics crude oil terminal in Northwest Portland today.
TAHOLAH, WA – The Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) is adamantly opposed to increased oil train traffic in Grays Harbor County, the construction of new oil terminals, increased oil shipping from the port of Grays Harbor and dredging of the Chehalis River estuary. “We oppose all of these for both economic and environmental reasons,” said Fawn Sharp, QIN President. “We ask the citizens, businesses and agencies from within the county and beyond to stand with us in opposing the intrusion of Big Oil into our region,” she said. “The small number of jobs this dirty industry brings with it are vastly outnumbered by the number of jobs connected with a healthy natural resources and a clean environment,” she said.
“It is time for people from all walks of life to stand up for their quality of life, their children and their grandchildren. It makes no sense whatsoever to allow Big Oil to invade our region, especially with the volume they are proposing. We all have too much at stake to place ourselves square in the path of this onrushing deluge of pollution, to allow mile-long trains to divide our communities and jeopardize our air, land and waters,” she said.
“Consider the number of jobs that are dependent on health fish and wildlife. The birdlife in Grays Harbor alone attracts thousands of tourists every year. Fishing and clamming attract thousands more. And anyone who listens to Big Oil or their pawns when they tell us how safe the oil trains are, or the ships or even the oil terminals that are being proposed needs to pay closer attention. We have already had large quantities of fish and shellfish stolen from us through development of and damage to Grays Harbor and its tributaries and we are not accepting any more losses. We want restoration, not further damage,” she said.
“Derailments, crashes, spills and explosions are extremely dangerous and they happen with frightening regularity. The fact is that there will be accidents and there will be spills, and they will do extensive damage,” said Sharp.
Sharp said there is another fact of which people must be aware: “If we stand together, speak up and demand to be heard, we can make a difference. Our collective voice empowers us.”
U.S. Development Group is currently seeking permits to build an oil terminal on the Washington coast that could handle about 45,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The $80 million proposal at the Port of Grays Harbor is one of several in Washington that together would bring millions of barrels of oil by train from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana. About 17 million barrels of oil were shipped across Washington State last. That number is expected to triple this year. Grays Harbor is facing three separate crude-by-rail proposals. Westway Terminal Company, Imperium Terminal Services, and U.S. Development Group have each proposed projects that would ship tens of millions of barrels of crude oil through Grays Harbor each year. Daily trains more than a mile long would bring crude oil from North Dakota or tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada along the Chehalis River and into the port, where it would be stored in huge shoreline tanks. The crude would then be pumped onto oil tankers and barges, increasing at least four-fold the large vessel traffic in and out of the harbor.
Westway Terminal Company proposes five new storage tanks of 200,000 barrels each. Westway estimates it will receive 1.25 unit trains per day or 458 trains trips (loaded and unloaded) a year. The company estimates it will add 198-238 oil barge transits of Grays Harbor per year. “The chances are even those counts are very conservative,” said Sharp.
Imperium Terminal Services proposes nine new storage tanks of 80,000 barrels each. With a capacity to receive 78,000 barrels per day, Imperium may ship almost 28.5 million barrels of crude oil per year. Imperium estimates that the terminal would add 730 train trips annually, equaling two, 105-car trains (one loaded with oil on the way in, one empty on the way out) per day. The company estimates 400 ship/barge transits through Grays Harbor per year.
U.S. Development Group submitted its application in this crude-by-rail race early this month. It proposes eight storage tanks each capable of holding over 123,000 barrels of crude oil. The company anticipates receiving one loaded 120 tank car train every two days, and adding 90-120 Panamax-sized vessel transits through Grays Harbor per year.
“We are targeted by Big Oil,” said Sharp. “We will not allow them to turn our region into the greasy mess they have created in other regions. We care about our land and our water. We realize how important our natural resources are to our future and we’re not going to sit by and let them destroy what we have,” said Sharp.
Deborah Hersman, outgoing chair of the National Transportation Safety Board said on April 21 that U.S. communities are not prepared to respond to worst-case accidents involving trains carrying crude oil and ethanol. In her farewell address in Washington DC, she said regulators are behind the curve in addressing the transport of hazardous liquids by rail and that Federal regulations have not been revised to address the 440 percent increase in rail transport of crude oil and other flammables we have experienced since 2005. Hersman, who is leaving her post at NTSB April 25 to serve as president of the National Safety Council, said the petroleum industry and first responders don’t have provisions in place to address a worst-case scenario event involving a train carrying crude oil or ethanol.
Hershman added in her comments that the DOT-111 rail tank cars used to carry crude oil are not safe to carry hazardous liquids. She also said that NTSB is overwhelmed by the number of oil train accidents. At present, she said the NTSB is involved in more than 20 rail accident investigations but only has about 10 rail investigators.
“It makes absolutely no sense for us to allow our communities to be exposed to the same dangers that killed 47 people in Quebec this past summer. That tragedy was not an isolated incident. It could happen here, and there is absolutely no doubt that this increased oil traffic will cost us all in terms of both environmental and long term economic damage,” said Sharp.
“For the sake of our public safety, our long term economy, our streams, wetlands, fishing areas, shellfish beds, and migratory bird habitats, we will stand up to them. The Quinault Nation encourages everyone who cares about the future of our region to participate in the public hearings regarding the Westway and Imperium proposals being conducted at 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday, April 24 at Hoquiam High School and Tuesday, April 29 at Centralia High School. We further encourage letters and calls to the Department of Ecology, to local government and to the Governor. Now is the time for to speak out in support of the future of Grays Harbor and the Pacific Northwest!”
“We strongly encourage people to show up and make comments and submit written testimony at these hearings,” said Sharp. “A good turnout is a must,” she said. Following the hearing, written comments can be sent to Maia Bellon, Director of the Department of Ecology, at 300 Desmond Drive, Lacey, WA 98503-1274.
To join QIN in this effort, please email ProtectOurFuture@Quinault.org. “Together, we can protect the land and the water for our children, and rebuild a sustainable economy,” said Sharp.
The Washington state board reviewing what would be the Northwest’s largest oil-by-rail terminal will undertake a sweeping analysis of the facility’s environmental effects — from the extraction of the oil to its ultimate consumption.
The environmental review for the proposed $110 million Tesoro-Savage oil terminal will consider impacts well beyond its location at the Port of Vancouver, the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council unanimously decided Wednesday.
Opponents of the oil terminal said they were heartened by the decision, while the project’s proponents remained unfazed.
“It’s generally encouraging that they’re looking at impacts outside of Vancouver throughout the state of Washington and the region,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for the environmental advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper. “As the process moves forward, we’re going to be looking for more specifics.”
The general manager of the proposed terminal, Jared Larrabee, said Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies have known since they first filed their application with EFSEC last summer that the council’s review would be “very robust.”
“We’re fully on board with going through that process,” Larrabee said.
The proposed facility would generate 250 temporary construction jobs and 120 permanent jobs, according to the companies, and boost local and state tax revenues.
EFSEC, a state council created in 1970 to address controversy over the siting of nuclear power plants, is reviewing the terminal proposal before making a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.
The council consists of a governor-appointed chairman and an employee each from five state agencies. During deliberations on the Tesoro-Savage proposal, Vancouver, Clark County, and the state Department of Transportation have representatives on the council, as does the Port of Vancouver, which approved a lease for the project.
Although the council’s Wednesday work session was public, the council did not take comments. Instead, the council chewed over a summary of the 31,074 overwhelmingly critical comments it had already received about the oil terminal proposal.
Since they knew they wouldn’t be able to speak directly to the council, about 50 opponents gathered outside the Clark County Public Service Center in downtown Vancouver before EFSEC began its meeting there.
“I’m hoping that everyone who is going to be inside will see we are out here and we care. We’re very concerned about the environment and safety,” protester Victoria Finch said. She lives close to the rail line that would supply the terminal with as many as 380,000 barrels of crude a day.
“We want EFSEC to turn it down. If they don’t, we want the governor to turn it down,” said protester Lehman Holder, chairman of the local Sierra Club chapter.
Opponents have argued the environmental impact statement should include the effects of greenhouse gas emissions — not just from the transportation of the oil to and from the terminal and its daily operations, but also from consumption of the oil.
Toward the end of the council’s meeting, EFSEC member Christina Martinez asked how far the environmental study’s consideration of greenhouse emissions would go.
“There’s some question of whether it fits into an area that’s speculative,” Chairman Bill Lynch said. “Some general analysis is appropriate because, obviously, burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases.”
Martinez pressed the point.
“It came up quite a bit in the scoping comments,” she said. “There’s a way for us to do that in the document without going to the nth degree.”
Don Steinke, who organized the pre-meeting protest, was taken aback.
“The biggest impact was almost an afterthought: the emissions from burning the fuel they’re shipping out,” he said.
Another Vancouver resident who has been tracking the oil terminal proposal was more upbeat.
“Listening to the tone of the board is encouraging,” said Eric LaBrant, who lives in the neighborhood closest to the proposed terminal. “They’re looking at details and asking questions. I’m going to be breathing those details — benzene and hexane and carbon monoxide. My kids are going to be breathing that when they’re taking spelling tests and riding their bikes.”
EFSEC staff can’t yet say how long the environmental review will take, let alone how long it will be before the council forwards its recommendation to the governor on whether to approve the oil terminal. The council will discuss the time line more specifically at its regular meeting April 15 in Olympia.