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Neighbors Hope To Derail Vancouver Oil Terminal

Conrad Wilson / OPB

An oil company is proposing to build the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country on the banks of the Columbia River. If completed, the Vancouver Energy Project could ship 360,000 barrels of oil daily from the Port of Vancouver, Washington. The companies backing the project promise jobs, but neighbors are worried.

Linda Garcia drives along the streets of the Fruit Valley neighborhood in Vancouver, Washington.

For almost the last 20 years, it’s the place she’s called home.

“My neighborhood is my family,” she said.

But she’s concerned about how this working-class, “transitional neighborhood” – those are her words – could change for the worse if the Vancouver Energy Project builds the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver along the banks of the Columbia River.

If completed, the Vancouver Energy Project could ship 360,000 barrels of oil daily from the Port of Vancouver to refineries along the West coast.

Many of the homes in the neighborhood, along with an elementary school, are less than a mile from where as many as four trains full with crude oil would unload at the Port every day.

“If there were any type of incident, explosion, over-release of chemicals, spill, earthquake, anything that will cause a safety issue, we’re not entirely convinced that our neighborhood will be safe from that,” Garcia said.

Not only that, but documents filed in August 2014 by the Vancouver Energy Project with the state, show the proposed terminal would emit chemicals known to cause cancer. However, according to the documents, those emissions would be in line with the state’s air pollution regulations.

Garcia said the community has long had a positive relationship with companies at the Port. And for the most part, she said, the neighborhood has embraced industry as part of daily life.

The small, uniform houses in Fruit Valley are evidence of that relationship.

Many were built during the early 1940s to house employees who worked at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II.

Despite that history with industry, Garcia said last year, the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association voted to oppose the oil terminal.

“So many companies have come into the Port and have come to our neighborhood association and have talked to us and have told us their plans,” she said. “And if we have any concerns, every single one of those concerns has been addressed.”

Garcia said that while the project’s backers did come to a neighborhood meeting, residents are still worried about safety.

Not far from Fruit Valley, Barry Cain, president of Gramor Development, is showing off plans for the city of Vancouver’s new blockbuster development.

Sitting behind a desk in the spacious lobby of city hall, Cain whips out his iPad to show off a rendering of a massive 32 acre, $1.5 billion mixed-use project right on the Columbia River.

“We’ve got a half mile long park and we’ll have great restaurants. They’re be 10 or 15 restaurants before it’s done, right along the water,” he said. “It’ll be just a beautiful environment. Obviously it will set the stage for the future of Vancouver.”

While the project’s not far from Fruit Valley, if the sleek design is any indication, the two neighborhoods are worlds apart.

Still, like many of the residents of Fruit Valley, Cain doesn’t want to see the oil terminal built.

The 21-block development is sandwiched between the Columbia River and the very railroad tracks that would carry crude oil to the Port. Already, trains carrying oil pass along the tracks before heading to refineries. And Cain said he doesn’t want to see more.

“We’re fighting it, because there’s no benefit to us,” he said.  

But Jared Larrabee, general manager for the Vancouver Energy Project, couldn’t disagree more.

“It’s a great benefit to the area,” he said.

Larrabee said the proposed oil terminal will create 320 construction jobs and an estimated 176 additional jobs once it’s up and running.

“It would have the ability to handle 360,000 barrels a day, which would be about four trains a day that we could handle at the facility. And to bring those in, unload the trains, put the crude oil into tanks and from there put it onto ships to ship to West coast refineries,” he said.

Larrabee said despite the opposition from neighbors, several polls show support for shipping oil by rail.

poll conducted by EarthFix in June found a little more than half of Washington state residents support-shipping oil by rail. But the poll also found the majority interviewed hadn’t read or heard much about oil trains in the state.

The poll surveyed 1,200 residents across the Northwest – 400 each in Oregon, Washington and Idaho from June 25-30. The margin of error for each state’s results was 4.9 percent. The three-state regional results had a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

Larrabee said safety will be integral to the oil terminal.

“This is a facility designed from the ground up, specifically to handle this and specifically for this type of operation,” he said. “What that means is we can design all of the state-of-the-art safety features in right from the get-go.”

Despite falling oil prices, Larrabee said the project remains viable because there’s still a demand for oil at West coast refineries.

Dr. Joel Kaufman, who researches environmental health at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, said when it comes to the day-to-day operations; it’s possible to keep those who work and live near-by relatively safe. But, he adds, things sometimes don’t go according to plan.

“They have upset conditions, they have times when they’re doing maintenance and something fails, or there’s times when safety equipment doesn’t work the way it supposed to,” Kaufman said. “It’s the times when these are running not the way they’re supposed to that I worry most about, including a catastrophic event.”

The oil terminal is under review by the state’s energy siting council.

Ultimately, the council will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee who will decide whether the project moves forward.


Copyright Oregon Public Broadcasting 2015