Vancouver oil terminal puts communities at risk

Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) is in the midst of a 5-week adjudication process to hear from select parties “for” and “against” building the nation’s largest crude oil handling facility in Washington.

Residents of communities across the state, from Spokane to Olympia, would be put at risk by an oil terminal proposed by Tesoro Corporation and Savage Refineries in Vancouver, Washington. Capable of receiving 360,000 barrels of oil per day, the project would add at least four 120-car trains (over a mile long!) loaded with crude oil to our state’s railways every day, plus four unloaded trains on the return route to Montana and North Dakota.

Loaded trains would travel west from Spokane along the Columbia River, and unloaded trains (which can still contain oil residue) would travel north through Olympia before heading east through the mountains.

One particularly worrisome aspect of this scheme is the added burden of air pollution that will be placed on rail communities. Unlike derailments and fires, which are a serious concern but may occur infrequently, there is no question that the toxic emissions from train engines will impact health.

The increased volume of trains would add to the existing burden of outdoor air pollutants, including diesel particulate matter and ground-level ozone. Chronic exposure to air pollution is linked to: increased risk of cancers, impaired lung development and increased risk of lung disease in children, increased rates of neurodevelopmental disorders in children (for example, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), increased rates and severity of asthma, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.

Fetuses, infants, children, the elderly, and those with preexisting disease or impaired immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

Prevention of disease and suffering always reigns supreme over treatment. This is especially true of the damage done by toxic exposure to train pollutants, as there is no effective treatment available. There also is no way to reverse the catastrophic loss of life and limb caused by a train derailment.

This project is also an issue of justice. The Spokane NAACP has raised questions about the increased air pollution from these oil trains further impacting low-income populations and communities of color. For example, the rail line crosses the Riverside neighborhood in downtown Spokane. Data from the Spokane Regional Health District shows this neighborhood already has the highest mortality rates in Spokane County for major cardiovascular disease and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

Record-breaking attendance at public hearings earlier this year indicates that Washingtonians do not accept the high level of risk associated with this project. Now, permitting decisions rest with the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) and Gov. Inslee.

We urge the governor to use his authority to reject this project and safeguard the health of our communities.

Dr. Frank Turner of Olympia and Dr. Ethan Angell of Spokane are members of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility; Naima Quarles-Burnley is president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane.