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Port Westward projects come into focus

This week saw developments that brought into focus how two controversial projects will play out at Port Westward.

First, the Oregon Department of State Lands on Monday, Aug. 18, resoundingly denied coal-export hopeful Ambre Energy’s application for a removal-fill permit needed for its Coyote Island Terminal facility in Boardman.

A key part of the state’s findings is that Ambre Energy’s proposal does not align with public water resource protection, conservation and best-use goals. The outpouring of voices in opposition, especially from tribal groups with historical ties to the area, undoubtedly influenced the state’s decision.

A second argument from state regulators is that Ambre Energy failed to fully gauge the availability of alternative sites. And this is where it gets a little tricky: The state, in making its argument, identified rail-only access to Port of St. Helens’ Port Westward as a legitimate alternative to construction of the Boardman facility.

Liz Fuller of Gard Communications, who is a spokeswoman for Ambre Energy, said there are logistical challenges with that design, and said the rail-only option was eliminated as a viable alternative.

In this sense, we fully agree. The prospect of unit trains annually hauling as much as 8 million tons of coal through Columbia County’s communities, in addition to the increasingly present unit trains hauling volatile Bakken crude oil, is no alternative.

We believe the state too casually identified Port Westward as an alternative, and believe it should have exercised greater due diligence in making such a statement.

Fortunately, political leaders at the Port of St. Helens — most notably Port Commission President Robert Keyser — have ruled out a rail-only option for coal transports to Port Westward.

Whether Ambre Energy will appeal the DSL decision remains to be seen. The Australia-headquartered company has 21 days following the decision to deny the permit, and Fuller said Wednesday, Aug. 20, no decision to appeal has been made.

On the other side of the coin, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on Tuesday, Aug. 19, approved a new air quality permit for Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery — the receiving and transloading depot for oil being transported to Port Westward — allowing the facility to receive as much as 1.8 billion gallons of oil annually — an increase from the existing permit allowance of 50 million gallons.

DEQ noted in its response to comments that it has no legal authority to rule based on the safety of crude oil trains, which has been our main area of concern in light of a smattering of explosions of trains hauling Bakken crude oil in North America. The most notable of those explosions occurred July 6, 2013, when a runaway train hauling Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

DEQ considers the crude oil transloading operation at the inactive refinery to be a new source of potential pollution, and has, according to its report on the permit, taken the apparent volatility of crude oil from the Bakken oil-producing region in the Midwestern United States into account in issuing the permit.

Again, the Port of St. Helens has instituted a cap on the volume of oil to be received at the Port Westward facility. As reported in our story this week, “DEQ issues air quality permit to CPBR over objections” on page A14, safety improvements in Rainier could significantly increase the volume of oil Global Partners LP transports to Port Westward, though it would fall short of the DEQ permit’s allowances.

For now, the issuance of the air quality permit is a clear green light for Bakken crude oil transports to continue unabated.

Now is not the time to be lax, however. As the most recent instance of a Bakken oil rail mishap fades into history, we encourage local, state and federal officials and activists to continue the press for improved safety measures and accountability to the public. By all appearances, oil trains — what some have labeled 'bomb trains' — are here to stay.