With a significant boost in oil trains rolling through downtown possible, city leaders say Spokane’s “voice will be heard” as the state considers a proposed crude oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington.
The state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council said Thursday that the city – as well as a number of environmental, tribal and governmental entities – was granted intervention status, meaning the city had shown it will be affected by the facility and will be part of the formal hearings the state will hold regarding the facility’s permitting.
City leaders applauded the state’s decision to include the city.
“To me, it means we at least get a voice and we’re treated as a partner,” said Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart. “Our voice will be heard.”
Mayor David Condon said the city’s role in the discussions connects to a larger issue of protecting citizens and the region’s sole source of water from potential dangers.
“Safety. That’s first and foremost. That’s my top concern,” Condon said, pointing to a petroleum pipeline that runs near a city well site as another possible hazard. “We’re in a unique situation because the viaduct goes through the center of our city. We’re critically interested in the traffic on our viaduct.”
Later this year, the state will hold hearings on the terminal proposed by Tesoro Corp., a petroleum refiner, and Savage Companies, a transportation company. If the facility is built, it will handle up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil a day, all of which would roll through Spokane on its way to Vancouver from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. The Tesoro-Savage facility would transfer the oil from trains to ships.
Derailments, leaks and explosions of trains carrying crude oil are becoming more common, thanks in large part to the increased production of Bakken oil. Earlier this month, a BNSF freight train pulling 103 cars of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation derailed in rural Illinois, leading federal officials to warn of a “substantial danger” of contaminating the Mississippi River. Last month, a train carrying crude oil derailed in rural West Virginia, sending fireballs 300 feet into the air. In 2013, a train carrying Bakken crude crashed in a Quebec town, killing 47 people.
Spokane is among 15 groups that asked for, and were granted, a seat at the table in the discussions about the facility, including the city of Washougal, Yakama Nation, the Umatilla Tribes and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4. The Spokane Riverkeeper was among eight environmental groups under the Earthjustice name that also were granted intervention status.
Six groups were automatically included in the discussions. The city of Vancouver, which opposes the project, and the Port of Vancouver are among them.
So far, more than 30,000 people have commented on the project, and the project has been delayed numerous times. A recommendation on the project will be made to Gov. Jay Inslee by Nov. 1, and he will have 60 days to approve or reject the proposal.
Condon said the city was modeling where people work and live to identify the most hazardous locations for a potential derailment, leak, explosion or other dangers posed by oil trains. The city also is investigating where spilled oil could enter the city’s water system.
Condon said Fire Chief Bobby Williams was looking into effectively “training and outfitting our firefighters and first responders.” He said he had met with officials from Fairchild Air Force Base, which has equipment better able to deal with toxic spills.
Lastly, Condon said he had met with a local representative from BNSF and was told of a “real-time tool” for first responders developed by the railway company.
Still, the mayor said he didn’t think the city’s emergency responders were prepared to react to an oil train crisis.
“I would say I’m not comfortable yet,” he said.
Stuckart agreed that safety was the top concern regarding oil trains, but took aim at an influx of crude oil on the city’s rails because he said it would “put our main exported product at risk.”
“Through downtown Spokane, we max out at 78 trains a day. During peak agriculture season, we hit that,” Stuckart said, adding that federal rules give oil precedence over agriculture products on rails. “Until they can figure out the safety issue and until they can figure out the economic displacement issue, they shouldn’t be siting any more of these facilities.”
Currently, the state is preparing a draft environmental impact statement for the project, which will be subject to public comment. The council hopes to have the draft completed in May.
Amanda Maxwell, a spokeswoman with the state’s council, said formal hearings for the facility have yet to be set, but there’s a possibility one will be held in Spokane.
“That will be up to the council where the meetings will take place,” she said, adding that state officials held an oil train meeting in Spokane in late 2013. Condon said having “hearings across the state is critical.”
Spokane’s official role in the state’s official oil train discussions follows Wednesday’s announcement that U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced legislation to immediately ban unsafe train cars from carrying crude oil. Washington’s other Democratic senator, Patty Murray, co-sponsored the bill.
“Every new derailment increases the urgency with which we need to act,” Cantwell said in a statement. Cantwell is the ranking Democratic member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Stuckart said both oil train developments gave him hope.
“It keeps the issue at the forefront,” he said.
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