Port of Vancouver commissioners renew controversial oil terminal lease

VANCOUVER — Controversy surrounding the years’ long Vancouver Energy oil  terminal reached a boiling point at a Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners meeting earlier this week.

 

After listening to more than three hours’ worth of testimony from members of the public who argued passionately for and against renewing the lease between Tesoro Savage Vancouver Energy and the Port of Vancouver, the three Port commissioners shared their own personal positions before finally voting 2-1 to renew the controversial lease for another 90 days.

 

“I continue to be frustrated by the fact that before this process was ever started, the community did not get a chance to weigh in and discuss this,” said Port of Vancouver Commissioner Eric LaBrant, alluding to the decision made by Port of Vancouver commissioners in April of 2013 to sign a lease with Tesoro Savage for a controversial crude oil terminal that could bring 360,000 barrels of crude oil by rail into the Vancouver port every day if approved by the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

This video is about 4.5 hours long and includes testimony from community members both for and against the oil terminal project and lease extension. All three Commissioners’ statements are at: 3:41:30 – 3:51:03 (Commissioner LaBrant), 3:51:05 – 3:53:27 (Commissioner Jerry Oliver) and 3:53:29 – 4:21:50 (Commissioner Wolfe + vote on issue)

 

 

The Port of Vancouver commissioners have been renewing the Vancouver Energy lease for nearly four years, as the project awaits final state approval, with the Tesoro Savage companies agreeing to pay the Port $100,000 a month to hold the space at the Port’s Terminal 5.

 

At the Port Commission meeting held Tue., March 7, the commissioners tried to decide whether extending the lease for another 90 days was truly in the public’s best interest. LaBrant, a father of two, lifelong Vancouver area resident and president of the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association, the neighborhood that sits adjacent to the proposed oil terminal project, argued that the time has come for the Port to say “enough is enough” to the Vancouver Energy project.

 

“Our job as a commission is to decide whether we want to drag this out,” LaBrant said at the March 7 meeting. “We were being told initially, ‘One more extension, just a few more months, just a little more time’ … so the decision before us today is, ‘Does it make sense today to continue to throw more time at this?’”


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LaBrant argued that the commissioners would never allow this type of project to come into the Port of Vancouver knowing what they now know about the contentious nature of the Vancouver Energy oil terminal.

 

“If someone showed up today and said, ‘Here’s this project I want to use Port property for … now, trains have fallen off the tracks and destroyed a small town and it may take another two years and a lot of the community is going to be really angry about it … and it might poison the neighbors, but just a little,’ there’s no way, if anyone else came to us and said, ‘I want a project like that,’ there’s no way we would allow it,” LaBrant argued.

 

Depending on the state government to make the decision about Vancouver Energy’s safety and possible impact on the community was not an option for LaBrant.

 

“There are people counting on us to make wise decisions on behalf of Vancouver and not abdicate and pretend it’s someone else’s job,” LaBrant said. “We need to make a decision to move on and move away from this process. We need to be done with this. They (Vancouver Energy) have had their day in court, literally, and there’s been an intense amount of scrutiny and everyone has gone through the process. But this (the lease between the Port and Tesoro Savage) was not meant to be indefinitely. … It’s time to move on.”

 

At this point in the meeting, which was already closing in on four hours, Port Commissioner Jerry Oliver spoke passionately, stating that he had “not been sold a bill of goods” as LaBrant has suggested and demanding to know what “clean jobs” were.

 

“I want to put the men and women who want to work, to work … everyone keeps talking about clean jobs. What the hell are clean jobs?” Oliver said, arguing that the types of jobs the Port of Vancouver provides are not “clean” jobs, but rather the type of work that pays a decent wage and gets a person’s hands dirty.

 

“I’m sick and tired of seeing people begging at the off ramps,” Oliver added.

 

He then blamed the lengthy state permitting process on environmentalists, saying: “This process has been drawn out because of the obfuscations by the environmental community and I’m sick and tired of all the falsehoods you put out.”

 

A few minutes after Oliver’s speech, Port Commissioner Brian Wolfe spoke for more than 20 minutes as he tried to explain how he’d come to the decision to grant Vancouver Energy another 90-day lease extension.

 

“I am absolutely frustrated by this project and the divisiveness it’s caused within the community,” Wolfe told the crowd of oil terminal opponents and proponents gathered at the March 7 meeting. “I’m not happy being a part of making this community divided, just like the country is divided over these things. But I also realize when I say that, that I am a Port commissioner and Port commissioners have a somewhat different obligation than general jurisdictions like cities. Our task is to provide jobs and invest the community’s resources.”

 

Although he admits that he probably would not have granted the oil terminal lease in 2013 knowing what he knows today, Wolfe explained that he has tried to base his decision about the project’s lease renewal on several factors, including the fact that Port of Vancouver staff say the project is not preventing other companies from coming into the Port, as some oil terminal opponents have suggested; the knowledge that the Vancouver Energy project, if approved by the state, could bring more than $100 million to the Port of Vancouver each year at its full build-out phase; and the understanding that Tesoro Savage has taken several steps over the past few years to prove that they are serious about the environmental and public health effects of the oil terminal project.

 

Wolfe pointed to a 10-page list of improvements Vancouver Energy provided the Port Commission, which include such things as: new rail car standards with much thicker walls to help prevent oil fires and spills in the event of a rail accident; training exercises with local and regional agencies to prepare for accidents; more restrictive rules on vapor pressure inside the rail cars; a state barrel tax to offset damage caused by spills or rail/marine accidents; testing to determine the earthquake-safety of the dock site at the Port’s Terminal 5 location; and a commitment to included a tethered tug on every ship that transports the crude oil from the Port of Vancouver to the Pacific Ocean along the Columbia River.

 

“It would be really easy for me to vote to cancel this lease,” Wolfe said. “And I take very much into my heart what you (the project’s opponents) have told me today.”

 

In the end, however, Wolfe said discussions with Port staff, who assured him that the lease extension would not hold up other potential Port of Vancouver projects, as well as the fact that the commissioners will review the Vancouver Energy lease agreement in just 90 days, led him to side with Oliver on extending the oil terminal lease.

 

Disappointed by Wolfe’s decision, LaBrant said the commissioners were elected to represent the entire community, “not just what makes the most money for the Port” and urged his fellow commissioner to reconsider, saying the Port could find other projects that were cleaner for the environment, did not come attached to potential public health problems and were not as contentious.

 

“As long as we stick to our mission, we’re going to be providing those union jobs, those construction jobs,” LaBrant said. “With things that won’t poison my family.”

 

When Wolfe pointed out that nothing like that has come through the Port’s pipeline yet, LaBrant said neither has the Vancouver Energy project.

 

“I don’t think you can look at me with a straight face and say three months from now or three months from that it (Vancouver Energy) is going to be providing good jobs,” LaBrant told Wolfe. “Here we are, almost four years into just a promise (of jobs). … I think it’s time to move on and launch forward and provide jobs to our brothers and sisters in the building trades.  And I absolutely reject the false dichotomy that it’s this or nothing at all, that this is magically the only project that is going to provide jobs.”

 

Wolfe agreed, saying quietly: “No, I don’t think it is,” before becoming very silent for nearly 30 seconds. Finally, Oliver called for a vote. And, in the end, Wolfe sided with the Vancouver Energy project, his swing vote deciding to extend the oil terminal lease for another 90 days.

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About The Author

Kelly Moyer has been reporting for community newspapers since the mid-1990s, including the Newport News-Times on the Oregon Coast; the Lewistown Sentinel, a daily newspaper in central Pennsylvania; the Gresham Outlook, Wilsonville Spokesman, Sherwood Gazette and South County Spotlight newspapers in the Portland metro area; and The Reflector newspaper in Battle Ground, Wash. She also is the former managing editor of Midwifery Today, an international magazine for birth professionals. Kelly, a University of Oregon alumnus and Pennsylvania native, lives with her family in Northeast Portland.

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