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Spokane influence played out in recommendation against Vancouver Energy Terminal

FILE - A warning placard on a tank car carrying crude oil is seen on a train idled on the tracks near a crude loading terminal in North Dakota. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee reject a permit for a massive oil-by-rail terminal along the Columbia River in part because of spill threats to Spokane. (Matthew Brown / AP)
FILE - A warning placard on a tank car carrying crude oil is seen on a train idled on the tracks near a crude loading terminal in North Dakota. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee reject a permit for a massive oil-by-rail terminal along the Columbia River in part because of spill threats to Spokane. (Matthew Brown / AP)

Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to reject a permit for a massive oil-by-rail terminal along the Columbia River was influenced by local residents’ worries about the potential for an oil train derailment in Spokane.

The governor’s decision, announced Monday, follows an earlier recommendation from a state energy panel to deny the permit for the Vancouver Energy Terminal.

Parts of the 100-page recommendation cited specific risks for Spokane. It said local emergency responders’ would have difficulty containing a spill or fire from an oil train derailment in downtown Spokane. It also listed the potential for oil spills to pollute the aquifer that provides the sole source of drinking water for more than 500,000 area residents

The report also mentioned oil trains temporary blocking vehicle traffic at rail crossings in areas such as Spokane Valley and Cheney.

Inslee told the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council in a letter Monday that he found “ample support in the record” for the panel’s decision.

The city of Spokane was an intervener in the proceedings, which gave local residents a “louder voice” in Olympia, Council President Ben Stuckart said Monday afternoon. Tribes, environmental groups and other cities also opposed the project.

Stuckart called the governor’s decision “great news for our citizens (and) for public safety.”

State Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, also hailed Inslee’s decision.

“The governor’s decision means more oil trains won’t be moving through Spokane, which means public safety won’t decrease,” Billig said.

The facility at the Port of Vancouver would have accepted up to 360,000 barrels of oil per day, making it the largest in the nation.

Crude oil from North Dakota and Alberta passes through Sandpoint and Spokane en route to Western Washington. The terminal would provide a place for the oil to be loaded onto tankers and ships headed to West Coast refineries. Construction of the terminal could mean four additional 100-car oil trains daily through the city, on top of the current two to three daily.

Four trains with empty oil tankers would also pass through Sandpoint and Spokane on the return trip to the oil fields.

But Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, of Republic, the assistant ranking Republican on the House Environment Committee, said Inslee was “putting politics above people” by rejecting a major job-producing project.

“The governor continues to hurt those who are struggling,” Maycumber said.

Strong turnout at meetings in Spokane and Spokane Valley helped articulate the threats posed by oil trains to state officials, said Laura Ackerman, energy director at the Spokane-based Lands Council.

“I think for the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, Spokane was always important,” Ackerman said.

The panel provides a “one-stop” siting process for major energy facilities in Washington. In recommending denial of the terminal permit, panel members listed the proximity of the oil trains to Spokane’s two largest public wells. The potential for a train derailment to spark a wildfire and harm salmon runs important to Washington tribes and state residents were also included.

The panel concluded that potential risks from spills and derailments outweighed the public benefit of the terminal.

For Spokane Valley and Cheney city councils, oil trains blocking roads at crossings was a public safety concern, officials said. The councils said additional train traffic would delay emergency response times for ambulances and fire trucks trying to cross the tracks, and increase the risk of train-vehicle collisions.

Cheney has four at-grade rail crossings, said John Taves, a city council member. Two private apartment complexes housing hundreds of Eastern Washington University students lie on the other side of the tracks. Taves said he seen students run around the railroad crossing gates when they’re lowered.

In addition, “the noise of the trains, and their whistles,” is a concern to Cheney residents, he said.

In Millwood, City Council member Andy Van Hees heard his constituents talking about the risk to the aquifer from an oil spill.

“We have the best, largest freshwater aquifer around here,” he said. “It’s our drinking water. …Let’s keep it that way.”

The developers of the Vancouver Energy Terminal have 30 days to file an appeal. The proposed project is a joint venture of Savage Companies and Andeavor, formerly known as Tesoro Corp., who didn’t respond publicly Monday to Inslee’s decision.

Proponents of the terminal have said it will decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil and touted the job creation from the project. About 320 workers would be needed to build the terminal, which would employ 176 people on a permanent basis.

However, the Port of Vancouver’s Board of Commissioners dealt another blow to the project earlier this month, when they voted unanimously to terminate a rolling lease on property if the project’s backers don’t provide all the necessary permits by March.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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