Energy export decisions loom over the Columbia River

Crosscut archive image.

A mile-long oil train rolling through the Columbia River Gorge.

Stand on the cliffs overlooking the wild beauty of the Columbia River, viewed by many as one of the most significant environmental forces in the Pacific Northwest, and you'll get a glimpse of why its rapid transformation into a fossil fuel axis is cause for rising cries of alarm.

Coal from the Rocky Mountains, oil from Alberta's tar sands, and crude from North Dakota's Bakken shale fields are being transported through the area at an unprecedented rate, putting the area at risk of major spills and explosions. Railroads are now moving an estimated 60 times more oil annually than they were during the period from 2005 to 2009.

A proposal to build the nation's largest oil-by-rail trans-loading terminal at the Port of Vancouver, was controversial from the moment it became public in 2013; the same year that saw a dramatic rise in oil train explosions across North America.

This month, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would conduct an environmental assessment of the proposal, a joint venture between Tesoro Petroleum Corp and Savage Cos. The joint venture, Vancouver Energy, would move an average of 360,000 barrels of crude a day from trains to marine vessels on the river. The Corps will base its assessment on the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, two federal laws designed to protect the environment. NEPA obligates the federal government to “promote the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without undesirable and unintentional consequences.”

As part of the assessment, the Corps will seek public review and comment on the Tesoro Savage proposal, according to spokesperson Patricia Graesser.

The decision is welcome news to those opposed to the terminal, a diverse coalition that includes longshore workers, first responders, firefighters, the City of Vancouver, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and some local developers as well as clean energy, fishing and conservation organizations. Many have come together under the banner “Stand Up to Oil” and have filed lawsuits against the Port of Vancouver and the federal Department of Transportation. A key bone of contention is what the plaintiffs, along with many environmental and community groups nationwide, see as the lack of meaningful progress in ensuring rail car safety.

This year, there have been five high-profile oil by rail accidents. In 2014 more crude was spilled in U.S. rail incidents than in any year since the federal government began collecting data, although there was dramatically less crude oil — by volume — spilled last year than in 2013. Major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota then leached a record 1.4 million gallons. But by frequency of spills, 2014 set a new high with 141 “unintentional releases,” according to data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The Columbia Riverkeeper, an organization concerned with the river's water quality, says the Army Corps of Engineers decision to conduct an environmental assessment, and hopefully an EIS, have been long in coming. The Riverkeeper is one of three environmental groups who filed a lawsuit against the Port of Vancouver for allegedly violating the state's Open Public Meetings Act when it signed the lease with Tesoro-Savage.

The lawsuit remains in litigation with attorneys for the Port denying the allegations. Port spokesperson Abbi Russell says the Port remains confident of its use of executive session. “Exemptions for public meetings fall under three categories,” says Russel, “real estate, personnel and litigation.” The Tesoro-Savage project is really about price, she says: “We're a landlord port and we need to be able to discuss how we're going to lease a property and what's an appropriate price.” The price has not been disclosed.

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Columbia Riverkeeper, contends that had the public known of the proposal, the lease may have been scuttled and the region might have faced less concern about volatility of fossil fuels moving through the area and public safety. “There's a reason why Tesoro and the Port wanted to sneak this through because it was highly controversial, especially once it was shown how dangerous these explosive oil trains are.” Tesoro, says VandenHeuvel, “plans to transfer oil from trains onto ships the size of the Exxon-Valdez and sail down the Columbia to the Pacific across a notoriously dangerous crossing, the Columbia River bar.” Mariners call the bar the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”

Vancouver Energy/Tesoro spokesperson Jennifer Minx said in an email that the terminal “will be primarily served by medium-range tankers less than half the size of the largest tankers that deliver crude oil to Puget Sound refineries and less than a quarter the size of supertankers.” She added that all vessels will meet federal Jones Act requirements, “meaning they will be U.S. crewed and U.S. flagged and will carry crude in double-hulled, segregated cargo compartments.”

Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanography Institute, Hong Kong Polytechnic University and others found that “double hull design on average reduces the size of oil spills by 20 percent in tank barges and 62 percent in tanker ship accidents.”

This spring, state lawmakers compromised on a state Oil Transportation Safety Act, which gives first responders advance notice of oil shipments and requires public disclosure of the amount and type of oil that moves through the state. Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, original sponsor of the measure, said the bill is a first step “but does not include important marine safety measures, leaving our waterways at risk.”

Critics of the Port of Vancouver proposal say the risks from the transfer of oil from rail cars to marine vessels have not been adequately addressed, nor is the state equipped to handle an oil spill the size of any tanker.

Meanwhile the state agency responsible for evaluating large energy projects, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, is in the process of developing its own draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). The project generated 32,000 comments when news of the proposed terminal surfaced. That's more than any energy project the agency has reviewed in recent history. Early this month EFSEC Manager Stephen Posner sent a letter to Tesoro-Savage's general counsel, Kelly Flint, informing him that State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) rules require an opportunity for the public to again provide comments on the DEIS. SEPA rules establish a minimum of 30 days. “In light of the controversial nature of the project,” wrote Posner, “and the extremely high level of public interest, I believe a longer comment period of 60 days is warranted and request your concurrence.” At this writing Posner had not received a reply.

Beyond the Vancouver proposal, there are other big concerns.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge have been lobbying for several years to stop or slow the pace of fossil fuels traveling through the gorge, the deep canyon that stretches for over 80 miles as the river winds westward through the Cascades. From temperate rainforests in the west to dry grasslands in the east, the gorge is a destination for enthusiasts of water sports, winter sports, fishing and wineries. At the Columbia's Cape Horn, a short drive from Vancouver, you'll find lupine and buttercup, larkspur, and Indian Paintbrush in bloom on a hot summer day. A peregrine falcon flies overhead.

For a while only the sound of waterfalls and birds echo in the forest. Then the engines of moving freight trains, Union Pacific on the Oregon side and Burlington Northern Santa Fe on the Washington side, break the tranquility. Neither appears loaded with oil or coal at this moment, but Michael Lang, Friends of the Columbia Gorge conservation director, says the Gorge is “ground zero” for oil and coal development; Rocky Mountain coal, Bakken crude from North Dakota, tar sands from Alberta, as well as Utah tar sands and oil shale. Last year an average of 19 mile long oil trains traversed the Gorge each week, often at speeds of 60 miles per hour, he says. The U.S. DOT released new oil train rules in May but they fail to protect communities and special places like the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, says Lang. Final rules would allow trains hauling CPC 1232 tankers, the same cars involved in the most recent oil by rail explosions, to continue operating until 2020.

Seven U.S. environmental groups, including Friends of the Columbia Gorge, filed a lawsuit last month challenging the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new crude-by-rail safety rules calling them too weak to prevent fiery derailments. “We’re suing the administration because these rules won’t protect the 25 million Americans living in the oil train blast zone,” said Todd Paglia, executive director of ForestEthics, one of the seven groups petitioning. “Five years is too long to wait for improved tank cars, and emergency responders need to know where and when these dangerous trains are running by our homes and schools.”

The Gorge holds federally protected status as a National Scenic Area. The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area is managed by the Columbia River Gorge Commission and the U.S. Forest Service. Enacted to “protect and enhance scenic, cultural and recreational resources”, the Act, says Lang, is a creature of federal law. Friends of the Columbia Gorge believe the 1986 federal law protecting 300,000 acres in the gorge has the potential to stop the rapid expansion and operation of railroads within its boundaries. “Railroads are also subject to federal law," says Lang, “but they can't adversely affect these incredible resources."

At the same time, he says, “we recognize that if you hypothetically close the gates at each end of the Gorge it only forces the railroad to use other routes through other environmentally sensitive areas.” Last July the Columbia River Gorge Commission, the interstate agency charged with overseeing the national scenic area, passed a resolution opposing transport of oil and coal by rail through the Gorge and called on the area's congressional delegation and on the governors of Washington and Oregon to “do everything in their power to apply the Act to the transport of coal and oil.”

U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington proposed the Crude-By-Rail-Safety Act of 2015 in March. But there's been little movement on the legislation or specific protection for the Gorge since.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Commission Executive Director, Paul Lumley says an oil train explosion would “undo all the hard work the tribes have done to restore salmon runs and cause impacts for generations to come.” The Inter-Tribal Commission who represent the Nez Perce, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Yakima tribes, are unequivocally opposed to the rail-by-oil terminal and an expansion of all fossil fuel transport in the area.

Port of Vancouver spokesperson Russell says Vancouver Energy remains committed to doing the project safely. “Between the very robust EFSEC process, ... the public comments we've received, and our concern for the community, we know we can do this.”

The mighty Columbia, which rises in the Canadian Rockies and flows on a long southern journey before emptying into the Pacific, has been central to the region's culture and economy for thousands of years: Its salmon runs were sacred to Columbia River Basin tribes. Its energy has been captured for hydro power, irrigation, and shipping. Its beauty has been protected in national parks and wildlife refuges. Skeins of conflict have always circled within its waters like the skeins of granite in the cliffs along its banks. But the conflict stirring on the river today, may be its most contentious yet.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.