On February 27th, the Port of Vancouver, WA and Tesoro agreed to early termination of Tesoro’s lease of port space. This marked the end of efforts to build and operate what would have been the largest oil train terminal in the country. We’re immensely grateful to all who worked towards this goal, including our many members who spoke out against this project, members of Oregon PSR’s Healthy Climate Action Team, and our partners in the Stand Up to Oil (SUTO) coalition. Opposition to this project fueled a five-year campaign powered by a fierce determination to protect our families, our communities, and our climate.
The project, a joint venture by Tesoro Corporation and Savage Companies, was first proposed in 2013. It would have moved up to 15 million gallons of extremely volatile Bakken crude oil daily to Vancouver, directly threatening communities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. From there crude oil would be shipped to West Coast refineries and/or Asian markets, further contributing to the public health disaster of climate change.
Public Opposition Rises
Early on, Oregon and Washington PSR produced an evidence-based position paper demonstrating critical health risks associated with projects like this as the basis of our opposition to increased oil transport and storage. Together, we trained health professionals to better understand the issue and to present our findings to regional decision-makers and the media. We also joined with dedicated activists from Fruit Valley, a low- income neighborhood near the proposed terminal, as well as with longshoremen, firefighters, and others concerned about the project’s impacts.
Our health advocates jumped in, studying climate impacts, rail routes, at-grade crossings, blast zones, derailments, diesel particulate, toxic air pollutants, noise pollution, and even outdated tanker cars. Many of you labored over testimony and sat for hours in drafty hearing rooms waiting to speak. You spoke from years of experience with asthma, cancer, cardiac disease, emergency response, and learning disabilities.
You advocated for protecting the health of babies, mothers, and other most vulnerable populations. You attended and spoke at rallies, in spite of the cold and the rain. You presented to professional organizations and wrote opinion pieces to local media. You sang and danced, designed banners and costumes, and showed up time and time again to share your vision for a healthier world.
With your encouragement, cities, counties, and various civic associations passed over 50 resolutions opposing Tesoro’s plans. With your support, Oregon PSR initiated opposition by the City of Portland and Multnomah County, which passed resolutions and submitted testimony. The county determined that over 25% of residents, 108 schools, and 100 child care centers are located within the evacuation zone near rail tracks and demonstrated a disproportionate negative impact of oil trains on communities of color.
Spurred by the memory of those who perished in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment and explosion, our movement grew in strength. We learned from tribal nations. We nurtured relationships with immigrant communities through the OneAmerica organization. Anti-coal activists shared their powerful voices in this shared movement.
Then came the game-changer: a June 2016 Union Pacific crude oil train derailment near the Mosier Community School in Mosier, Oregon. That explosion and fire forced evacuations, closed I-84, shut down the community’s drinking water supply, destroyedtheir wastewater treatment system, and polluted the Columbia River. Had it been a windy day, the fire would have been catastrophic. Environmental and public health advocates, elected officials, and Columbia River Tribes rallied to ensure that this lesson would never be forgotten.
Decision-Makers Get It Right
In November of last year, Washington’s Energy Facility Siting Evaluation Council (EFSEC) members voted unanimously to recommend denial of Tesoro’s permit application. A record 289,000 public comments were received, and over 2,000 community members participated in hearings. This was the longest process in EFSEC history, with issues “unprecedented both in scale and the scope of issues raised.” We are so grateful to them for their service and for making the right decision.
EFSEC’s Final Environmental Impact Statement showed serious public safety and environmental impacts that could not be fully mitigated, including an increase in rail accidents, seismic-related risks, harm to endangered salmon, rail delays and transportation disruptions, and a disproportionate effect on low-income and minority populations, including a decrease in property values, increased noise, and delays to motorists and emergency responders.
In late January, Washington’s Governor Inslee concurred with EFSEC. The basis for his denial of the proposed project includes:
- Seismic conditions at the site present an “unacceptable and potential catastrophic risk” to the public;
- Inability to sufficiently mitigate oil spill risks, which threaten the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean;
- Potential safety risks of fire and explosions to workers and the community, to which emergency responders are unlikely to be able to successfully respond;
- Endangerment of the lives of workers, those incarcerated in the nearby jail, visitors to the facility, and others in the community.
Clearly, the risks outweighed the benefits, an argument articulated over and again by EarthJustice attorneys representing SUTO coalition members.
While hearings before various agencies ensued, parallel struggles took place internally at the Port of Vancouver. Eric LaBrant and Don Orange ran successful races, and their elections changed the face of the Port Commission. Unlikely politicians, they stepped up and out of their comfort zones to protect their community. They worked to terminate the lease. Governor Inslee, too, made the right decision in denying the application. Elections matter!
We are deeply grateful to our Healthy Climate Action Team, to Stand Up to Oil coalition partners, and to each of you who contributed in ways known and unknown to this tremendous victory. You served as our immune system by staving off the myriad new threats to the health of our communities and our climate. Thank you!
- Fossil Fuel Exports: Preventing the largest fracked gas-related export proposals in the nation in SW Washington and Oregon.
- Portland Clean Energy Fund: Advocating for a just transition towards a clean energy economy in Portland
- Oregon Climate Legislation: Working with the Oregon State legislature to pass laws that protect our climate and the health of our communities.
- Oil Train Safety Legislation: Working to improve oil train safety in Oregon, which has the weakest laws on the West Coast for oil train emergency response and environmental review.
If you’re interested in getting more involved in this upcoming work or in joining our Healthy Climate Action Team, contact me at [email protected]. I look forward to hearing from you!
-Regna Merritt, Healthy Climate Program Director