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No shows a letdown at Elma oil trains forum

When almost 140 people showed up for a League of Women Voters forum to address the issue of billions of gallons of crude by rail being shipped through Grays Harbor in the years to come, they were expecting to hear from both sides of the issue.

But a no-show by all the private parties that stand to make millions from the proposal and any official from the Port of Grays Harbor – also a significant beneficiary – turned the well-intentioned event into a one-sided affair. Still, the event revealed that scores of Harborites from all walks of life have serious concerns about the issue on many fronts, and there could be an intriguing coalition of opponents.

While the for-profit interests were obviously avoiding the event, government officials from the city of Hoquiam and state Department of Ecology fielded questions from the passionate and diverse doubters, who crowded the Grange Hall in Elma on April 23. The League of Women Voters, which hosted and organized the event, invited all interested parties, including representatives from the three companies proposing to ship millions of gallons of crude oil through the Harbor each year, the railroad company — Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad — and the Port of Grays Harbor. They also invited representatives of some vocal critics, including the Citizens for a Clean Harbor and the Quinault Indian Nation. Members of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, the highly reputable, staunchly nonpartisan organization founded in 1920 that has conducted numerous presidential debates, tabbed Vidette Editor Steven Friederich to moderate the event, but even he was frustrated by the lack of representation from the business side of the issue.

“Absolutely nobody from the other side is here to present their viewpoint,” he said apologetically to the crowd. “There’s not going to be a lot of people to answer your questions and I’m really sorry for that.”

That did not placate some in the crowd.

“Every meeting I’ve been to, they never show up,” shouted one audience member.

“The Port never shows up,” added another.

“I came here because I thought there would be pros and cons,” said a woman in the crowd.

Friederich told the jam-packed room that — in fact — only the Port had responded in any way, and that was a letter from Port Executive Director Gary Nelson, respectively declining the invitation to attend. He read the letter to the audience. It’s text is as follows:

“We have participated in several forums throughout the County including one in Elma sponsored by CCH. As you know we reached out to all the East County City councils earlier this year. I am not aware of any new concerns and figure if there are, you will report them. My past experience has been that these forums are not a particularly productive venue for objective dialogue and Shannon (Vandenbush — director of the League of Women Voters) usually tapes the forum so there is another record of citizen concerns.

“We also provide information regarding the proposed projects and rail safety on our CBR webpage, as well as a comment/question section for folks to share their thoughts and pose questions. We understand that not everyone has access to the web, so we are happy to answer questions over the phone. And, as you know, we offer not one, but two public comment periods during our monthly Commission meetings.

“Our primary focus the next couple of weeks will be the scoping meetings the City and DOE have scheduled as part of the EIS process on April 24 (Hoquiam) and April 29 (Centralia). One of my takeaways from previous forums has been the need for an EIS on the projects so now that process has begun I think it should get full support to insure (sic) the projects get the thorough objective review they deserve.”

That was all the assembled crowd heard from any of the the proponents of crude by rail.

Much of the forum – more than two hours long – was a litany of opposition views and very concerned citizens and local lawmakers or former lawmakers, who were well-represented, including Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines, Montesano Mayor Ken Estes and Elma Mayor Dave Osgood, County Commissioner Wes Cormier along with council members from Centralia, Hoquiam, Montesano and Elma. Among the many concerns expressed by the dozens of people who spoke from the stage or the audience podium were:

• A huge increase in rail traffic 1,300 more trains per year — that would negatively impact communities along the route such as Elma, Montesano and Aberdeen.

• The possibility of a derailment along the route that could devastate area rivers, streams, fisheries and wildlife habitat.

• The possibility of a devastating explosion along the route, such as the one in Quebec that killed 47 people and incinerated most of a small town.

• The possibility of a large tanker spill in Grays Harbor, which has never been a major oil port, and certainly never for crude oil in such large numbers that will require huge tankers — carrying up to 16 million gallons each — to transport to refineries. Under the proposals, 2 billion gallons of crude would be stored and shipped from the Harbor each year. The forum opened with informational presentations by Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay and officials from the Department of Ecology.

“Unlike the soulless businessmen and the dunderheads at the Port, they showed up tonight,” Hoquiam City Councilman Richard Pennant said, thanking them for their presentation.

Shay outlined the proposed plans to store and ship the crude oil that will originate from the Bakken tar sands of of North dakota and possibly Canada.

• Imperium Renewables would build nine new storage tanks and ship and store up to 1.2 billion gallons of oil per year.

• Westway could store and ship up to 766.5 million gallons of crude per year.

• A third proposal, by U.S. Development, which is not part of this EIS process, has preliminary plans to ship an average of 766.5 million gallons of crude oil would be handled at the facility each year, but the permit application states that the facility would handle 689.85 million gallons each year — 76.65 million gallons fewer than the previous prediction. This plan is a bit more controversial because of the site’s proximity to the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. Paula Ehlers, a section manager with Ecology, tried to allay some of the crowd’s concerns by noting that it is very early in the Environmental Impact Statement process and that the public had numerous ways and opportunities to express their concerns to the government regulators.

This is the preliminary “scoping” process,” she said, and the public has until May 27 to submit comments and concerns regarding what the EIS should ascertain and how to go about it.

During scoping, “You can tell the agencies what you think should be included in the EIS,” she told the audience. “It’s really an important part of the process, I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Gary Murrell, an instructor at Grays Harbor College, asked Ehlers, whether the coming of oils trains “can all be stopped or is this a juggernaut?”

“I think we’re just going to wait and see what the EIS says,” she replied. “That’s what this process is all about and that’s the fair way. I’d like the process to play out.”

Following Ehlers, the audience was shown two video presentations, one by Elma High School student Jarred Figlar-Barnes, highlighting the possible environmental and economic devastation should their be some sort of spill disaster on the Harbor.

The second was by members of the Citizens for a Clean Harbor. The highlight of that presentation were slides of the blast radius from the Quebec explosion superimposed over maps of Elma, Montesano and Aberdeen, illustrating the potential for great human disaster and noting the number of schools, homes and businesses that could be affected by such a blast. Like Figlar-Barnes, that presentation also covered the possible massive environmental impacts of any spill on the local waterways and delicate estuary ecosystems.

Both presentations also focused on the notion that Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad’s infrastructure on the Harbor is woefully antiquated to handle so much transport of so much crude oil over so many rivers and streams.

Some of the spill concerns were addressed by Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, a Dept of Ecology spill preparedness section manager.

While Pilkey-Jarvis’ answers brought some positive news, she also noted possible consequences if things don’t go as planned.

“Out of this last legislative session, the Department of Ecology spill program has been directed to write a report, a study, that’s going to look at these large issues that you’ve been bringing up,” she said. “We’re doing a study that will look at rail safety and oil spill gaps and issues in moving crude by rail. This is a really big issue.”

But she had bad news, too.

“The fact of the matter is, once oil is spilled you lose right away,” she said. “There’s all sorts and sizes of spills and they all do damage.”

And that’s the crux of the opposition — both human safety and environmental concerns. Quinault Indian Nation representative Steve Robinson took to the microphone in an effort to rally the concerned citizens into a cohesive opposition coalition.

“The Quinaults are adamantly opposed to oil trains,” he told the crowd to loud applause. “The tribe is interested in working with anyone who wants to keep Big Oil out of the Harbor.”

Robin Moore of Hoquiam took to the podium to point out the irony of a company that named itself Imperium Renewables being involved in the proposal and implied that the whole affair seemed like a cynical money grab that threatens the Harbor in many ways.

“Way back when this whole thing first started I asked the people at Imperium if they had given up on biofuel,” she stated. “And they said no, so I went to their website and I took this comment.

She read a mission statement she found on the company’s website that she felt told that story.

“A commitment to social responsibility. It’s not just fuel we are working on. We founded this company with a goal to fundamental changing how we power our vehicles by creating a fuel that would reduce global warming and our dependence on the dwindling supply of petroleum, while at the same time providing a renewable source of energy for generations to come.”

Ray Brown of Westport was the only one left in favor of the projects by the end of the night.

“Fracking has been going on 65 years, there’s nothing new about fracking,” Brown said. “It really comes down to this: You guys don’t want no crude, you don’t get no crude. That means everybody’s walking home tonight. No walking on the pavement because that’s asphalt. When you go to the grocery store, don’t even think about buying anything, because it’s all made with oil.”

The forum is being broadcast on Eagle TV, public-access television hosted by Elma High School.