State oil trains run into heavy opposition

Recent hearings in Centralia and Hoquiam give voice to widespread worries about safety

bshannon@theolympian.comMay 4, 2014 

Oil train cars stacked in Tacoma.


As Washington environmental regulators start wrestling with the safety of new and larger fuel terminals along the Pacific Coast, some residents in southwest Washington communities are getting restless — with worries about the safety of crude oil shipped by rail to refineries and shipping docks.

Oil-by-rail traffic is growing in Washington by leaps and bounds, altering the way oil is fed to refineries and challenging a state that has a good record of oil safety on marine waters.

Traffic went from zero barrels by rail in 2011 to 12.1 million barrels in 2012 and 17 million last year, state environmental authorities say. The amounts are expected to rise in 2014 and eventually go far higher as up to 10 new or expanded facilities are finished in Vancouver, Grays Harbor and at the state’s five existing refineries from Tacoma to Ferndale.

Last week, a crowd of about 150 people turned out for a hearing in Centralia that was designed to measure how widely to study the environmental effects of two of the three oil terminal projects proposed for Hoquiam’s ocean port at Grays Harbor.

That hearing followed another large crowd at a meeting the previous week in Hoquiam.

In both cases, the sentiment against the projects — and especially the onrush of oil-train traffic into Washington — was overwhelming.

“Being born on the wrong side of the track takes on new meaning now,” said Larry Kerschner, a Centralia resident who testified about what the additional 120-car trains might do to auto and truck traffic. “I hope that no one dies while waiting for an ambulance to get across the tracks. I hope that no one’s houses burn down while waiting for the firetruck to come across the tracks.”

Others called for better emergency responses to spills, increased inspections once terminals are expanded, and safeguards including one man’s call for a $50 million surety bond against damages. Some wanted a broad look that includes oil-by-rail effects along the Columbia River, which is the main entry point for oil trains. The state League of Women Voters called for a broad examination that takes into account the effect of burning more oil on climate change.

Some who spoke noted the deadly explosions of a train carrying volatile oil in Lac-Mergantic, Quebec, which killed 47 last year. And just one day after the hearing, an oil train went off the tracks in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, catching fire near the James River.

The public meetings — dubbed “scoping hearings” — were sponsored by the Department of Ecology and the city of Hoquiam, which are jointly leading the environmental review process. Although some speakers at hearings want the state simply to halt the oil industry’s quick expansion in Washington, DOE doesn’t have the power to issue a moratorium, agency spokeswoman Linda Kent said.

“We’re trying to find out what people think should be studied in the environmental review,’’ Kent said, describing the agency as being in a “listening mode” with its hearings.

Paula Ehlers, who oversees the environmental review for Ecology on the two Hoquiam projects, said the agency expects to evaluate environmental effects along the short-line rail from Grays Harbor to Centralia. But the question of how much further the agency needs to go — such as considering Columbia River Gorge effects — won’t be determined until the public comment period ends May 27.


The agency similarly hasn’t decided how to weigh the effects of oil shipping on climate change.

Sponsors of the projects are Westway Terminals, a Louisiana firm whose Hoquiam terminal handles methanol for industrial processes, and Imperium Renewables, a Seattle-based biofuels company, both of which began operating facilities at Grays Harbor in the past decade. Each is expanding storage and shipping facilities for its coastal market and each expects to significantly boost rail traffic to feed its facilities that transport fuels by barge and ship.

Both companies bring in crude oil from North Dakota, and national transportation officials say this oil is more volatile and explosive than conventional crude oil.

Imperium is projecting its expanded facility would be served by an additional 730 trains and 200 barges or ships a year, while Westway says the two phases of its project would add 458 rail trains and 200 barge or vessel shipments yearly. The rail estimates include return or empty trips, meaning an average of three to four new trains each day.

“Our existing and expanded operations are required to follow very stringent federal and state guidelines that have been established over the last four decades,” wrote John Plaza, president of Imperium, in a letter this year to DOE. He went on to say the company has been receiving and shipping rail cars of fuels as well as loading and unloading vessels on the site without incident since 2007.

Imperium says its project would add to the local tax base and provide about 60 jobs during construction with about 20 permanent jobs once the project is finished.

In documents filed with the state, Westway estimated its $60 million project would require about 123 trains a year — each with roughly 120 cars or 78,000 barrels of oil. This would allow the site to move more than 17.8 million barrels a year. The company also expects to ship about 53 to 64 barges of fuel, and site construction would mostly overlap slips built years ago.

Both firms are deferring to Hoquiam and Ecology to decide what scope of review is needed, according to Paul Queary of Strategies 360, a Seattle-based public affairs company handling media queries for the projects.

Queary said the public has obvious concerns but the firms are confident they can operate in an “environmentally sensitive way.”

“We think there is broad support in the community for the economic (gains) and jobs that the projects will bring. The port has been the engine of economic development in Grays Harbor in recent years and we’re happy to be part of that,’’ Queary said.

A sense that a lot is happening fast — and that people and governments aren’t prepared — was driving a lot of the worry of people who showed up to talk in Centralia on the terminals.

Arthur Grunbaum, president of Friends of Grays Harbor, said the scoping period that ends May 27 is “inadequate” for the problems posed by rail and vessel shipments to and from the terminals. He said people, including tribes, and many animal species along the coast are put at risk.

Patricia Owen, a grief counselor, said her family had seen three major train derailments near its farm between Winlock and Castle Rock over 30 years, and she warned what might have happened if any of those mangled trains had carried crude oil.

The Quinault Indian Nation also is on record against the projects because of risks to fisheries that are part of the tribe’s treaty rights to harvest.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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