On The Lake: A column about lake issues by the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper

What’s that sound? It’s the largest crude oil by rail proposal in America going down

By Shannon Williamson
Reader Columnist

Tuesday marked a huge victory for advocates of clean water — like me. And people that dislike sitting in their cars at blocked at-grade rail crossings. And people that enjoy prompt emergency response. And people that aren’t a fan of rail-driven noise pollution. And people that prefer their property values to increase rather than decrease. And perhaps most significantly, people that very much dislike exploding tank cars. More on this later.

What makes a victorious day for all of these people? Well, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) unanimously recommended denying permitting of the Tesoro Savage crude oil by rail terminal in Vancouver, Wash. THIS. IS. HUGE.

Shannon Williamson.

The proposed Tesoro Savage facility would have been the largest in America, processing 360,000 barrels of crude oil per day. If approved, that would mean that an additional five full oil trains would roll through Sandpoint and along the shores of Lake Pend Oreille EACH DAY. This proposal alone would more than double the volume of oil train traffic that we currently experience.

For those of you that may not be familiar with the review process for a proposed energy facility of this magnitude, suffice it to say that it’s thorough. Which means it takes a really long time. The application for the proposed facility was originally submitted in 2013. A scoping phase, where public comments were collected, led to the publication of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in 2015. Public comment on the DEIS concluded in January 2016, and these comments were used to inform the Final EIS, which was released on November 21 of this year. All in all, over 300,000 people voiced their opposition to the project. That’s a lot of people.

EFSEC is a Washington State agency tasked with carrying out this permitting process for large energy projects in accordance with the Washington State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA). In the Final EIS, EFSEC found four key areas where the Tosoro Savage project would cause “significant and unavoidable harm”. These areas included seismic hazards (from fracking), rail and pedestrian accidents, traffic delays at at-grade crossings and disproportionate impacts to minority and low-income populations.

Based on these findings, EFSEC members UNANIMOUSLY recommended that Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say, deny permitting the project. Inslee has 60 days to make a decision once it’s in his hands. While nobody can predict the future, it’s not looking good for Tesoro Savage given Inslee’s record on environmental issues. However, stranger things have happened, like the ending of “Shutter Island.” Needless to say, all eyes are now turned on Inslee.

For everyone that shared their concerns about oil train traffic through our community, thank you. Oil trains pose numerous hazards to our overall quality of life, but perhaps the most frightening is their propensity to turn into giant fire balls upon derailment or accidental impact. This is a real thing that took the lives of 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Canada in 2013. A derailment in Mosier, Ore., in 2016 along the banks of the Columbia River resulted in evacuation and oil leaking into the water when four cars caught fire. We don’t need these risks or any of the other risks that come along with oil trains here, and it looks like we may get to breathe a little easier in the (hopefully) near future.

Shannon Williamson is the executive director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper and also serves as Sandpoint City Council president.

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