Washington High Court: Oil Terminal Negotiations Should Have Been Public

OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – The Port of Vancouver violated open meetings laws when it held closed sessions for lease negotiations for a controversial proposed oil-by-rail terminal, according to the Washington Supreme Court.

Ruling in favor of three environmental groups, an en banc panel found that the public’s interest in the oil transport facility outweighed the port’s concerns about competitors undercutting the proposed deal.

“The legislature plainly did not intend to allow pervasive discussion of important public issues behind closed doors,” Justice Charles Wiggins wrote in the panel’s 31-page opinion. “The legislature was fully capable of creating such a broad exception had it wished to. It did not.”

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

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

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

Numerous groups have been fighting the facility since the port approved a lease agreement with Tesoro-Savage in 2013. Opponents claim potential oil spills and explosions pose a grave risk to 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 it limited the choices of reasonable alternatives available.

The state court dismissed the claims, and an appellate court affirmed. In March of this year, the state Supreme Court, sitting en banc, again affirmed the original ruling.

Around the same time, the three environmental groups also sued the Port of Vancouver USA and its commissioners over violations of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, which led to the environmentalists’ first victory. The port had argued that it held the lease negotiation meetings in private executive sessions to prevent other neighboring ports from “poaching” potential lease deals.

The port held seven of these closed meetings between March and July of 2013, five of which were discussed on appeal. The environmentalists claimed in state court that these meetings should have been open to the public.

The open meetings law contains an exception for meetings that discuss a “minimum price” for real estate transactions, and the trial court stayed the proceedings for appellate review on that issue.

Parsing the exception in the law, the state supreme court concluded Thursday that the port should have held five of its meetings in public.

“The Tesoro-Savage lease involved topics that were clearly matters of substantial public concern, including environmental risks, public safety hazards, and local economic impacts,” Wiggins wrote.

The panel rejected the port’s arguments that opening the meetings to the public would jeopardize its negotiating power in enacting the lease.

“The fact that ‘the people’ in this case includes the Port’s competitors is not an independent justification for shielding a broader swathe of the Port’s discussions,” Wiggins wrote.

A spokesperson for the port said they were reviewing the opinion to determine what steps to take next.

“We expected the Supreme Court to offer further definition of ‘minimum price,’ which is helpful for all municipalities to ensure we continue carrying out our missions with transparency,” communications manager Abbi Russell said in an email.

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