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County commissioners push back on port, oil train fears

Fisher, Heimuller defend traffic, tout commitment to rail safety


by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Earl Fisher.Columbia County commissioners signaled less receptiveness to arguments against the Port of St. Helens’ request for local support on a pending state application than their counterparts on the Columbia City and St. Helens city councils Wednesday, June 11.

The two county commissioners at Wednesday’s board meeting in the Columbia County Courthouse heard comments from several members of the public who criticized crude oil trains on the Portland & Western Railroad, which runs through most of the county’s cities, as well as the Port of St. Helens’ plans to seek “regionally significant” status for industrial lands in north Columbia County. That status, if conferred by the state of Oregon, would entitle projects on those lands to expedited review and appeal and protect their industrial zoning status for at least a decade.

Annie Christensen, a St. Helens resident who recently started a pro-environment community group called Envision Columbia County, said she opposes the port’s plans and wants the county to seek public input before it decides whether to back the port’s application, which may include more than 3,000 acres of industrial land at Port Westward north of Clatskanie.

“It is my understanding that the county commissioners can pass a resolution or a letter of support for the Port Westward special designation without a public hearing,” Christensen said. “Will the county commissioners speak for all of us with no opportunity to determine if there is, in fact, community support? I request a public hearing.”

Commissioners Earl Fisher and Henry Heimuller said they will make any decision on the port application in a public meeting, but they did not commit to holding a public hearing on the subject.

The Columbia City and St. Helens city councils both ruled out the idea of supporting the port’s plans to include industrial parks in those cities in its application last Wednesday, June 4. Port representatives said they would respect the cities’ wishes and not seek regionally significant status for those lands.

But Christensen said Wednesday she is concerned that rail infrastructure could expand if even the downsized application is approved. That could potentially enable more oil trains per month to access Port Westward, where a crude oil terminal is located, she said.

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Henry Heimuller.Scappoose resident Carroll Sweet said she is concerned about the public safety risk the oil trains pose. She was frightened after a near miss she had when she was stuck at a red light with her horse trailer on the railroad tracks with an oil train approaching, she told the commissioners.

“Would it have made any difference if it was a log train?” Heimuller asked.

Sweet replied, “Yes, because it wouldn’t have exploded.”

Trains carrying crude oil have caught fire and exploded in several high-profile incidents over the past year, most recently in Lynchburg, Virginia, in late April.

Heimuller suggested any type of train would have caused serious damage to Sweet’s car and horse trailer if they had collided.

“We can sensationalize oil trains, but we have train traffic in this county, and we have a whole lot more trains of other than oil coming through here every single day,” said Heimuller. “We’re a county of commerce. We hope to be a county of commerce. ... I’m more concerned about making sure our rail crossings are safe.”

Heimuller, who also said he has been asked to serve on a state task force on rail safety, was joined in his sentiments by Fisher.

Fisher dismissed the idea that “everything is going to blow up” on the rail line. He cited an incident earlier this year in which a 300-ton turbine fell onto the tracks at Port Westward and dented a railcar filled with crude oil as evidence that the cars are sturdier than some critics suggest.

“There are groups that come before this board, constantly, saying they represent the public,” Fisher said. “I would suggest that they represent a very small fraction of the public. I know I live in Clatskanie, and I can produce 62 people that would be very much in favor of the development there. You can walk down the street in St. Helens and find a lot of people who will say that they support what’s going on. What’s difficult for us as elected leaders is to balance that — those who come to meetings and make noise, and those who stand in the street and talk to you.”

Commissioner Tony Hyde, who chairs the board, was not at Wednesday’s meeting. He was in Portland reviewing grant applications, Heimuller said.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled Sweet's first name. The story has been updated.