Greens Lose Fight Against Giant Oil Terminal

OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) — Environmentalists lost a fight Thursday against construction of a massive oil terminal on the Columbia River, when the Washington state Supreme Court sided 5-4 with the Port of Vancouver.

The port did not violate the state Environmental Policy Act when it entered into a lease with the companies to build the terminal, the court ruled.

Tesoro Refining & Marketing Co. and Savage Companies (Tesoro-Savage) plan to build an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver on the Columbia River.

It would send crude oil to refineries across the West Coast, and is expected to handle around 360,000 barrels per day.

If built, it would transport the largest volume of oil by rail in the United States. The project is still under evaluation by the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

Numerous groups have been fighting the project since the port approved a lease agreement with Tesoro-Savage in 2013. They claim there are grave risks of oil spills and explosions that could harm the Columbia River and communities along the West Coast.

In October 2013, the Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center challenged the lease in state court, claiming the lease between Tesoro-Savage and the port limited the choices of reasonable alternatives available.

The court dismissed the claims, and an appellate court affirmed. On Thursday the state supreme court, sitting en banc, again affirmed the original ruling.

The port satisfied the legal requirement not to limit reasonable alternatives before the environmental review of the project is finished, the majority found.

“The lease language plainly preserves the Port’s ability to shape the final project in response to environmental review, for example by adopting additional mitigation measures, heightened insurance requirements, or modifying project specifications,” Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote. “This preserves reasonable alternatives.”

Fairhurst was joined by Justices Susan Owens, Barbara Madsen, Charles Wiggins and Steven Gonzalez.

Dissenting justices rejected the majority’s conclusion that the port did not violate the State Environmental Protection Act, calling it “untenable.”

“If and EIS [environmental impact statement] is to actually inform the decision-making process – rather than rubber-stamping a predetermined outcome – it must be available before key decisions are made,” Justice Debra Stephens wrote in dissent.

Variable aspects of the oil terminal project, such as designs and mitigation measures, should continue to be variable until the environmental impact statement is complete, the dissent argued.

The impact statement “would have provided the Port with a reliable assessment of the spill, accident, and derailment risks associated with the Tesoro project,” Stephens wrote in dissent.

“In light of the project’s proximity to downtown Vancouver, Washington, the EIS might have suggested measures to mitigate these risks, or explored reasonable alternatives such as different locations or a reduction in project scale. Instead, the Port decided to sign the lease and commit itself to the Tesoro project without being fully informed of the likely environmental consequences. SEPA requires more.”

Stephens’ dissent was joined by Justices Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Mary Yu, and Charles Johnson.

Similar concerns about safety and environmental effects were heard at a public meeting last year, where speakers said the draft environmental impact statement did not consider the full scope of the project’s risks.

“My question is, why should we be spending our tax money to train our first responders to save the fossil fuel industry from their self-igniting disasters?” asked Rachel Foley of Portland, whose son is a firefighter. “Shouldn’t we be spending our money to move into a clean energy future?”