By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer
OLYMPIA — The plan to build the largest rail-to-marine oil terminal in the United States suffered a major blow Tuesday at the hands of the state body tasked with its evaluation.
Barely five minutes into a special meeting at the state Capitol, the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council unanimously recommended disapproval of the Vancouver Energy application for site certification to build a crude-by-rail oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver.
Many people in the audience, which filled the meeting chambers and overflowed into two other viewing rooms, reacted with audible gasps when EFSEC councilman and Clark County Public Works employee Greg Shafer made the motion for the council to recommend rejection of the project.
“Based on the full record, including the adjudicative preceding and Final Environmental Impact Statement, which, considered together, reflect Vancouver Energy has not met its burden … to establish the Port of Vancouver is an acceptable location to site the proposed Vancouver Energy distribution terminal,” he said.
At the close of the meeting, terminal opponents erupted in cheers and shared hugs and handshakes with those around them, while many of the terminal’s supporters quickly left the building in a palpable air of frustration.
Vancouver Energy has proposed to build a $210 million terminal at the Port of Vancouver. It would be capable of transferring an average of 360,000 barrels of oil per day from crude oil unit trains into marine vessels in the Columbia River bound for refineries along the West Coast.
In a statement released afterward, Vancouver Energy said it is “extremely disappointed” by the decision, especially after more than four years of review by a state body that is mandated to be finished with a project’s review within a year.
“EFSEC has set an impossible standard for new energy facilities based on the risk of incidents that the Final Environmental Impact Statement characterizes as extremely unlikely. The FEIS confirmed that construction and normal operation of the facility would have no significant unavoidable impacts that cannot be mitigated,” the statement read.
Vancouver energy promised to create more than 300 jobs during the terminal’s construction as well as hundreds of direct on-site and off-site jobs once it was fully operational. Thus the project enjoys strong support by some business groups and many trade unions in both Washington and Oregon.
“It would have meant hundreds of jobs for the building trades — laborers in particular, which is why we were in favor of it,” said Deken Letinich, a laborer union member who attended the meeting. “I understand it. It’s a very environmentally conscious state, but … it’s disappointing for us as organized labor.”
The project faced fierce opposition from environmental groups, climate activists and several city governments along the Columbia River who claimed that the ecological risks associated with the project far outweighed the monetary benefits.
“My stomach just dropped when I heard the word disapprove. I didn’t think they were going to make a decision today,” said Des Moines resident Mary Paynter.
She said Vancouver Energy is just one of many fossil fuel projects she and her church’s climate action group have publicly opposed in the last several years.
“I read the Final Environmental Impact Statement, and it was pretty damning for this project because it just outlined the risks that could not be mitigated.”
EFSEC staff will now craft a final report in support of the decision. EFSEC will then vote to forward that document and decision to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee during its next regular meeting Dec. 19.
From there, EFSEC staff will have until Dec. 29 to make any changes and deliver the recommendation to the governor’s office.
However, EFSEC’s recommendation is just that. The ultimate decision on the project’s construction will be made by Inslee. After he officially receives the EFSEC recommendation, Inslee will have 60 days to respond.
At the same time Inslee’s countdown clock begins, so does another for Vancouver Energy and other interested parties. The company, and any other groups involved with the evaluation, will have 20 days to file a request for reconsideration of the decision. If any party does file a request for reconsideration, the others will have 14 days to respond.
Vancouver Energy officials didn’t respond when asked if they would request reconsideration.
The crude-by-rail terminal was the first of its kind to be considered by EFSEC since its creation in 1970. The body was created to be a one-stop licensing body for large energy projects being considered around Washington. Under state law, a project’s evaluation is supposed to be completed within a year, but Vancouver Energy’s took more than four.
“It has been a long process with voluminous information; probably the longest process in this council’s history — with issues of great significance that have never been faced by this council before,” said interim EFSEC Chair Roselyn Marcus.
But even if the state body had recommended approval of the terminal, the project faces a very uncertain future at the local level.
Port of Vancouver Commissioner-elect Don Orange rode a wave of oil terminal opposition into office. After the start of the new year, he’ll take office alongside fellow Vancouver Energy opponent Commissioner Eric LaBrant.
Together, the two are expected to form the majority needed to cancel the port’s lease with Vancouver Energy.