For the past few weeks, the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) has been holding hearings on the matter of a proposed oil-by-rail terminal that could be built in Vancouver, Washington. If approved, it would be the largest oil-by-rail facility in the country, handling some 360,000 barrels of crude oil, shipped by train, every single day. It would also greatly increase the number of oil trains that pass through Washington, adding a total of 155 trains, per week, to the state’s railroads.
Environmentalists worry that an increase in oil trains could lead to a rise in oil train derailments, like the kind seen in early June when a Union Pacific train carrying Bakken crude derailed outside the Oregon town of Mosier, spilling 42,000 gallons of oil near the Columbia River.
But according to witnesses that testified before the EFSEC on behalf of Vancouver Energy — the joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. and the entity behind the Tesoro-Savage terminal proposal — oil spills might not actually be that bad for the environment.
“The Draft Environmental Impact Statement identifies many economic impacts arising from an accident associated with Project operations, but fails to recognize economic activity that would be generated by spill response,” Todd Schatzki, vice president of Analysis Group — a consulting group that released an economic report on the terminal commissioned by Tesoro Savage — wrote in pre-filed testimony. “When a spill occurs, new economic activity occurs to clean-up contaminated areas, remediate affected properties, and supply equipment for cleanup activities. Anecdotal evidence from recent spills suggests that such activity can be potentially large.”
Schatzki’s pre-filed testimony also includes references to both the Santa Barbara and BP oil spills’ role as job creating events. He notes that the Santa Barbara oil spill created some 700 temporary jobs to help with cleanup, while the BP spill created short-term jobs for 25,000 workers. Schatzki does not mention that BP has paid individuals and businesses more than $10 billion to make up for economic losses caused by the spill. Nor does he mention that California’s Economic Forecast Director predicted that the 2015 Santa Barbara oil spill would cost the county 155 jobs and $74 million in economic activity.
For the Columbia River region, the impacts of an oil spill could be equally economically devastating — a report from the Washington Attorney General’s office found that an oil spill could cost more than $170 million in environmental damages.
Schatzki also argued that an oil spill would not necessarily have a large impact on commercial and recreational fisheries. The Columbia River, which cuts between Oregon and Washington and borders much of the oil-train route, is one of the most important fisheries for both states. In 2015, the total economic value of Columbia River salmon was $15.5 million, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Those fisheries, however, would not necessarily be impacted by an oil spill, Schatzki argued, because fishermen would simply avoid the areas where the spill had taken place, moving their operations elsewhere. During cross-examination, however, Schatizki said that he did not look at other fishermen’s responses to oil spills when crafting this analysis, nor did he specifically look at the length of fishing seasons or the geographic extent of various fisheries within the Columbia River.
In testimony given on July 7, another Tesoro-Savage-associated witness, Gregory Challenger, argued that oil spills could actually have benefits for fish and wildlife. Challenger, who worked with Vancouver Energy to analyze potential impacts and responses in the event of a worst-case discharge at the facility and along the rail line, told the committee that when oil spills cause the closure of certain fisheries or hunting seasons, it’s the animals that benefit.
“An oil spill is not a good thing. A fishery closure is a good thing. If you don’t kill half a million fish and they all swim upstream and spawn, that’s more fish than were estimated affected as adults,” Challenger said during his testimony. “The responsible party is not going to get credit for that, by the way.”
To prove his point, Challenger cited National Marine Fisheries Service data that showed that 2011, the year after the BP oil spill, had been a record year for seafood catch in the Gulf of Mexico. And while that’s true, Shiva Polefka, policy analyst for the Center for American Progress’s Ocean Policy program, cautioned against trying to make sweeping statements for how all ecosystems would respond to an oil spill. Following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, researchers discovered that crude oil had soaked into the rocky beaches near the spill site, emitting toxic compounds for years that had long-term adverse impacts on salmon and herring populations.
“Does cutting fishing effort benefit fish? Absolutely,” Polefka said. “Enough to mitigate the horrible effects of large oil spills in every case? Absolutely not.”
During his testimony, Challenger also brought up the Athos 1 oil spill, which sent 264,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River in 2004. The spill, Challenger said, took place during duck hunting season, and forced an early closure for recreational hunting in the area.
“There were an estimate of 3,000 birds affected by the oil, and 13,000 birds not shot by hunters not shot by hunters, because of the closed season,” he said. “We don’t get any credit for that, but it’s hard to deny that it’s good for birds to not be shot.”
According to NOAA, seabirds are especially vulnerable to oil spills, because of the way that oil affects their usually-waterproof feathers — when those feathers become matted with oil, a seabird loses its ability to regulate its temperature. Often, it will try to preen itself to remove the oil, which only forces the oil into its internal organs, causing problems like diarrhea, kidney and liver damage, and anemia. Oil can also enter into a seabird’s lungs, leading to respiratory problems.
Opponents of the terminal were quick to dismiss Schatzki and Challenger’s testimony as “hollow,” especially in the face of the recent derailment and oil spill in Mosier.
“We see Tesoro moving towards these more desperate arguments to try to downplay the risk of the project,” Dan Serres, conservation director with Columbia Riverkeeper, told ThinkProgress. “It’s hard to imagine that EFSEC will buy the argument that oil spills pose anything other than a grave risk to the Columbia River estuary.”
The EFSEC hearings will continue through July 29; following the hearings, the committee will submit a recommendation to Washington Governor Jay Inslee to approve, conditionally approve, or deny the project.