Opponents of a planned oil-by-rail terminal urged Port of Vancouver USA commissioners at their meeting Tuesday to cancel its lease with terminal companies Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, raising several arguments against what would be the largest oil-to-marine terminal in the Northwest. But that terminal might not be the biggest factor affecting oil train traffic through the city.
Also in Vancouver Tuesday, the city’s chamber of commerce organized a meeting with BNSF Railway and local businesses, where the railroad carrying crude oil through southwest Washington explained its safety plans and fielded questions. One of the themes out of the meeting that chamber and BNSF representatives discussed afterward: Terminal or no, more oil trains are headed through Vancouver.
The rail line through the Columbia River Gorge and Vancouver to Portland is an attractive one for railroads to use for unit trains of crude oil because it lacks the elevation changes present elsewhere on routes through the Cascades, Chamber of Commerce President Kelly Parker and BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace explained.
Steep grades can create problems for long, heavy trains and their brake systems. The oil train that derailed, exploded and killed 47 people in Lac Mégantic, Quebec last year was a runaway train on a downhill grade.
For that reason, the railroad sees routing trains through Vancouver as a safer option, despite its population. Beyond that, every route BNSF trains can take to terminals and refineries on the West Coast means passing through at least one population center.
"It's such a tough spot to be in. If we could create the world as we want it we would say 'why don't you move that oil somewhere else?'" Parker said after the meeting. "But the reality is -- and what we heard today -- is the east-west line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Rail that runs through the Columbia River Gorge is the safest route from their perspective because you don't have to go up and over a mountain to bring oil through."
The Port of Vancouver has also used this inevitability argument to support the planned terminal.
“Either we understand them and create benefit, or we simply sit on the sidelines and watch the trains go by,” port CEO Todd Coleman said in an opinion piece published Monday in The Columbian and on the port’s website.
Meanwhile in Portland, another a city also watching through traffic of oil trains whether it’s involved or not, the port said Tuesday it is passing on crude oil terminal plans … for now.
In Vancouver, with a terminal already in the works, Parker said the decision isn't so easy.
"This is hard because we don't like the idea of oil coming across our tracks in Vancouver and we are horrified by the pictures we've seen of the six accidents we've seen nationwide and in North America," she said. "Underneath that emotion is the fact that we already have oil coming through our town."