Members of ILWU Local 4 have joined forces with community and environmental allies to stop a scheme by big oil that could ruin their port, close the Columbia River and turn their city into a disaster area.
Documents show that officials from the Port of Vancouver reached a deal in secret with oil companies to build the nation’s largest oil-to-marine export terminal without first holding public hearings on the controversial and dangerous proposal.
Four trains a day
Big oil wants to bring four “unit trains” a day to the Port of Vancouver. Each of the mile-long trains would carry 100 or more tank cars filled with highly volatile and explosive crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. Each of the cars carry 30,000 gallons of highly flammable crude as the trains travel through dozens of towns before reaching the west coast.
The possibility of a catastrophic disaster that could wipeout parts of Vancouver and other town became more real on July 6, 2013. That’s when a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in a cataclysmic firestorm that destroyed much of Lac-Megantic, a town in Quebec, Canada. The disaster killed 47 residents and injured many others.
“Bringing this stuff into our town is just irresponsible and too dangerous,” says Local 4’s Cager Clabaugh who has told Port Commissioners that “the risk isn’t worth the reward.”
He notes that Local 4 members opposed plans for an oil export terminal in their town before the 2013 disaster in Quebec, and have strengthened their resolve since.
“Before that disaster, oil industry lobbyists were assuring our Port Commissioners that this stuff was safe and there was nothing to worry about,” said Clabaugh. “They changed their tune after the Lac-Megantic disaster, but are still saying it’s safe enough and refuse to drop their dangerous plan.”
Many other incidents
A parade of crude-by rail calamities has hit communities in North America. Six months after the Lac- Megantic inferno, another fiery rail crash occurred in Casselton, North Dakota where a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train carrying Bakken crude exploded after a collision.
That North Dakota accident was the fourth major North American derailment of crude-carrying trains during a six-month period in 2013. A total of 24 serious oil train crashes have occurred in the U.S. since 2006, with five crashes so far in 2015, according to the Associated Press.
Fracking fuels oil boom
Record volumes of oil are moving by rail because oil production in North Dakota and Texas have shot to levels not seen in 30 years. The boom is based on “fracking,” a drilling technique that injects high-pressure chemicals underground to loosen oil and gas deposits.
The process allowed the U.S. to become the world’s largest oil producer in 2015–eclipsing Russia, and thus achieving a quiet but critical U.S. foreign policy goal of limiting Russia’s ability to gain influence through energy exports.
The Port of Vancouver became entangled in the crude oil export scheme after incurring debts on a 5 million infrastructure improvement project, called the West Vancouver Freight Access. It aimed to expand rail capacity and hopefully attract new clients and jobs to the port. In 2012, Port officials thought they had a deal with BHP Billiton – one of the world’s largest mining companies – to export potash fertilizer from a new mine in Canada.
But that deal died and left the Port with no client, excess capacity and mounting debt payments on their new infrastructure project. That’s when officials began promoting the crude oil export terminal as the Port’s potential savior.
Wheels were greased for the oil export terminal in 2013 through a series of secret meetings with officials at the Port of Vancouver. The closed door meetings were recently analyzed in a series of reports published by the Columbian newspaper that examined 1600 pages of documents. The reports raised serious questions about possible violations of state laws and an erosion of the Port’s commitment to an open and democratic decision-making process.
By early 2013, Port staff picked two powerful petroleum industry players – Tesoro and Savage – to operate the proposed oil terminal. One port commissioner admitted that decision “probably” took place in a closed-door executive session. Other commissioners say they can’t remember or agree on exactly what happened in the private meetings, but records show that oil executives met in private with Port officials in at least one closed-door session.
By April 18, Tesoro was moving forward with the project, and the next day, both companies received an exclusive negotiating agreement from the Port. On April 22, 2013, the companies formally announced plans for the oil export terminal.
In a backwards decision-making process, the Port announced a series of hearings on safety and environmental concerns after – not before – making their secret deal with Tesoro and Savage.
Those hearings in the spring and summer of 2013 seemed like “window dressing” and a “rubber stamp to many citizens who responded by filing a lawsuit in October, 2013. The suit was backed by the Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Northwest Environmental Defense Center.
“It may be hard for some to believe, but environmental groups have been our most dependable allies in the fights we’ve had for good jobs in this community,” said Cager Clabaugh.
Secret meetings & finger-pointing
The lawsuit exposed thousands of pages of Port documents that appear to confirm violations of state laws prohibiting public agencies from conducting their business in secret. Documents show the Port held at least nine private meetings involving the oil export terminal.
After those meetings were exposed, the Port admitted holding at least seven secret meetings, but officials continue to insist that no laws were violated.
The lawsuit has led to the deposition under oath of three Port Commissioners about their role in the oil terminal deal. Two of the three commissioners have offered conflicting statements about whether they approved the secret development deal, or if it was approved by the Port’s CEO, Todd Coleman. In the midst of the controversy, Port Commissioner Nancy Baker announced she was stepping down and would not seek re-election.
“Managing” public concern
In one of their secret meetings held in April of 2013, oil and rail executives met privately with port commissioners Baker, Jerry Oliver and Brian Wolfe to strategize how to manage and neutralize concern and criticism from local citizens.
ILWU joins protests
ILWU Local 4 members and leaders have become part of the informal network of Vancouver citizen groups who are opposing the crude-oil export terminal. In addition to labor and environmental organizations, the diverse group of opponents includes local business owners and land developers who worry that the export terminal is a threat to property values and future development options.
An election to fill the open seat on Vancouver’s Port Commission this November is turning into a referendum on the crude oil export terminal.
In the August primary election, a field of seven candidates was whittled down to a showdown between Eric LaBrant who opposes the crude export terminal, and Lisa Ross, who strongly backs the project. The candidates also disagree on the Commission’s history of secret meetings, with LaBrant calling for a more open process and Ross defending deals that were reached in private. And if the crude oil terminal deal falls apart, Ross is open to replacing it with a coal export facility while LeBrant favors exporting hi-value manufactured goods made in the USA. As of September, the Ross campaign had raised ,000, including money from oil interests, while LaBrant collected ,000 – including a 00 donation from the ILWU.
The lawsuit and Port Commission election remain a critically important part of the campaign. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee retains final authority to approve or reject the oil plan that will be reviewed by the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
“We intend to keep up the pressure and keep working with our allies in the community to dump this dangerous crude oil terminal plan and get the Port Commission back on the right track,” said Local 4’s President Jared Smith.