Oil company's request draws new concerns over oil spills
A looming decision on whether to loosen restrictions on oil transloading in Columbia County has renewed discussions about the risks associated with hauling and barging volatile oil.
Port of Columbia County commissioners are slated to discuss a request for a lease amendment from Global Partners LP during a work session Wednesday, Nov. 28.
Global asked the port to remove restrictions to the American Petroleum Industry, or API, rating for oils it can transport. API indicates the density of an oil in relation to water.
The company is currently permitted to haul ethanol and crude oil through the county to Port Westward, where it operates the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery.
Global's request to modify oil transport restrictions triggered a lengthy discussion among port commissioners about whether the company and its contractors are adequately equipped to deal with an oil spill or fire in the event of a mishap or train derailment. Port commissioners were told the safety and clean-up response measures in place exceed state standards.
Environmental advocates aren't so sure about that.
Dan Serres is the conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy and watchdog organization. Serres says he suspects Global wants to start shipping a heavier, denser grade of crude oil, which is more likely to sink and poses new risks if it were to spill into a nearby waterway.
"The port's current restriction is a very important protection for the port and the people in the district," Serres said Monday.
He added, "When oil sinks, it escapes that conventional spill response equipment. To my knowledge, Global does not have a plan for sinking oil. They're not currently set up to address that type of spill, at least in their DEQ spill response plan," noting documents filed with the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Sinking oil has been a sticking point for some.
"Crude oils are not created equally," says David Byers, a response section manager with Washington's Department of Ecology. Byers notes that while initial response methods might often look the same for most types of oil spills, different grades of oil have different risks associated with them, and require unique clean-up approaches.
While lighter crude oils are typically more volatile and create greater fire risks, heavier, lower API-rated oil can have greater clean-up challenges if spilled in water.
"It gets very challenging to detect and recover once it's on the bottom of the river," Byers notes.
With crude oil, clean-up response could take months and require invasive processes, like dredging. But with ethanol, the type of fuel currently being transported by Global, it's a different, sometimes futile response.
"If there's an ethanol spill on land, then you have an opportunity to recover," Byers explains. "But if it mixes with water, there's really no recovery option; it's gone."
Environmental advocates often look to Washington for best practices.
"We have a really engaged legislative direction in our contingency work here," Sonja Larson, a response specialist with Washington's ecology department notes. "We've updated our response plans more frequently than Oregon has."
Global representatives say the company is more than equipped with emergency response plans, and contracted clean-up organizations are ready for worst-case scenarios.
"We are absolutely prepared with a spill response for both Ethanol, and Crude Oil," Catie Kerns, a spokesperson for Global Partners, stated by email. "The relevant state and federal agencies have approved our plan."
Kerns says Global recently conducted a "worst-case" spill drill involving several agencies and Global staff.
"There is a real distinction between heavier oils and oils that sink," she adds. "We understand there are questions about moving the heaviest category of oil (less than 10 API). We are most interested in the option to move the other categories of oils, those with an API greater than 10."