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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Proposed oil terminal brings only risk for Spokane, critics say

A crowd of approximately 200 rallies against oil trains outside the Centerplace building in Spokane Valley, where Thursday’s meeting was held. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Building a crude oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington, puts Spokane and other communities at risk from increased oil train traffic, without offering any local economic benefits, opponents of the project told state officials Thursday night.

Four more oil trains daily would pass through downtown Spokane on elevated tracks if the Vancouver Energy Terminal is built, heightening the risk of a fiery derailment, they said.

“There is nothing in this for Spokane, only risk,” said Sierra Club member Dennis Todara, who works in a downtown office building. “Our office windows look out over the train tracks. We’re just hoping to stay lucky.”

More than 100 people signed up to testify at the hearing in Spokane Valley, which drew a crowd of vocal opponents, including local officials, tribal members and community members. Residents of Sandpoint and Missoula also testified, saying the extra oil train traffic also put their cities at higher risk for derailment and spills.

The hearing was scheduled by Washington’s 10-member Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which is accepting public comments on a draft environmental impact statement for the terminal.

Several Spokane City Council members testified at the meeting, and state Sen. Andy Billig sent written comments, which were read aloud. They expressed concerns about the projected increase in the mile-long oil trains through the region.

The terminal would accept up to 360,000 barrels of oil per day, resulting in the four additional oil trains daily through Sandpoint and Spokane, plus four empty trains per day on the return route. Two to three oil trains a day pass through the area currently.

Crude oil from North Dakota’s oil fields and Alberta’s tar sands would be unloaded at the terminal and barged to coastal refineries in Washington, Oregon and California. The $210 million terminal is a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies.

Accidents involving rail shipments of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields have been responsible for a string of explosions since 2013, including one that killed 47 people in Quebec.

“Our citizens and our river are sitting ducks,” said Candace Mumm, a Spokane city councilwoman.

Until oil companies are required to stabilize the volatile compounds found in Bakken crude, the rail shipments through populated areas aren’t safe, said Ben Stuckart, Spokane City Council president. He asked state officials to recommend against the project to Gov. Jay Inslee, who will make the final decision.

“The draft environmental impact statement shows that mitigation is impossible,” Stuckart said.

A representative of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP also testified against the terminal, saying low-income households and people of color are more likely to live near the tracks and would be at greater risk from diesel pollution and potential derailments or fires.

Increased wait times at train crossings also was raised as a concern for Cheney and Spokane Valley residents.

However, the project received support from local carpenters and boilermakers.

“As an oil-consuming nation, we need a steady, reliable supply of oil,” said Lance Fritze, a Kootenai County resident who represents a local carpenters union. Oil-by-rail shipments are “safer than using a pipeline and more efficient than trucking it,” he said.

“I like to think that I live in the real world, and I think that oil is very important to our way of life,” said Zach Hutzenbiler, a Post Falls resident and local boilermaker. He encouraged state officials to use common sense as they deliberate the project.

Jared Larrabee, general manager for the Vancouver Energy Terminal, said the crude oil shipped through the terminal to West Coast refineries will be consumed in the U.S. – much of it in the West, where demand for gasoline is growing. Recent declines in crude oil prices won’t affect the project’s viability, he said.

“This is a long-term project,” Larrabee said in an interview before the hearing. “We’re not looking out one to two years.”

Company officials believe the terminal can be operated “safely and in an environmentally responsible manner,” according to a statement from Tesoro-Savage. The terminal would only accept oil shipments in the newer, safer rail cars, Larrabee said.

BNSF Railway, which transports the crude oil, has spent $550 million upgrading tracks in Washington in the past three years, with additional work planned this year, said Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman. The work included replacing all of the track on elevated bridges through downtown Spokane, he said.

Oil trains travel at lower speeds through populated areas, he said. Through Spokane, oil trains travel 20 to 35 mph, he said.

Rail industry officials say 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destinations without releases.

But critics have called for a more rigorous look at the derailment risks between Spokane and Vancouver.

“We believe the risk of accidents needs to be more scientifically assessed,” said Dr. Bruce Amundson, president of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, who testified Thursday night. Recent accident analysis indicates that the weight of oil trains plays a role in derailments, and even new track can fail, he said.

Tesoro-Savage officials are hoping for a decision on the terminal this year.

This story was updated to correct Lance Fritze’s place of residence.