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Consider the other pieces of community stewardship

To the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, the Port of St. Helens Commission, State Sen. Betsy Johnson and State Rep. Brad Witt:

I live in Columbia County, two blocks outside of the St. Helens city limits. I hold the old-fashioned belief that the famous phrase from the U.S. Constitution, “We the people,” still means something.

I am one of “we the people” of Columbia County who hired you and entrusted you, through our votes, to serve us through careful stewardship of this community that we love. Community stewardship is not a difficult concept to grasp. Visualize it as a simple pie, divided into a number of equally sized pieces. Mark each of those equally sized pieces with the following labels: community safety, health, attracting industry and jobs, environmental protection, sustainable local agriculture, local small business protection, livability protection and protection of future generations.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Danner ChristensenWithout a doubt, you all have zealously attended to the “jobs and industry” piece of the pie. Recently, these efforts included undisclosed negotiations with Kinder Morgan resulting in a non-disclosure contract to bring coal trains through the county, approving an increase in the number of Bakken crude oil tankers passing through the county on the way to Port Westward, and rezoning prime agriculture land in Port Westward to industrial uses.

I know that you all live in this county, own property, may own local businesses, and have children and perhaps grandchildren who live here. You must cherish something about the quality of life that Columbia County offers or you would move somewhere else.

That is exactly why I am so baffled and disturbed that I have seen no concrete evidence that you gave serious and equal consideration to the other pieces of the “stewardship pie” that make this a desirable and special place to live. Where was the proactive community stewardship in your recent decisions? Some of you approved an increase in dangerous oil trains on the tracks, decreasing the safety of our community. What about the struggling small businesses on the east side of the tracks in Scappoose, St. Helens and Rainier? What about sustainable local agriculture in these communities, much of which relies on pollution-free land? What about the very real risk of human, property and environmental damage? Who pays to clean up damage to the Columbia River when an oil barge accident occurs, such as recently happened in Texas? Exactly what are the plans for the rezoned agricultural lands at Port Westward? Where was the stewardship of community livability?

I don’t think you are ruthless and insensitive people, but I and ever-increasing numbers of county citizens believe you have allowed the “jobs and industry” slice to trump all of the other pieces of proactive community stewardship. Some of your decisions directly affecting community safety seem to have been undertaken with little consideration given to the dangers of Bakken oil and DOT-111 tanker cars. I, and many others, find this alarming and unacceptable.

Fortunately, the governor of New York state, that state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the county commissioners and county executive of Albany County have very recently shown us how elected officials act when they take the proactive stewardship of their state and communities seriously.

Global Partners is the Port of St. Helens tenant involved in the business of transferring Bakken crude oil from railroad tanker cars to barges on the Columbia River at Port Westward. That same company is seeking to increase and modify its oil transfer operations in Albany County, New York.In New York, however, the Department of Environmental Conservation and Albany County commissioners are requiring Global to answer 29 fundamental questions related to their operations before their plans are approved. Many of these are common sense questions that should have already been asked here in Columbia County. They certainly inspire questions that should be asked immediately for the good of the entire Columbia County community.

Here are a few basic questions:

n What is the scope and financial limits of Global’s liability insurance policy for personal injury, property damage and environmental damages should an accident occur while transferring oil to barges? The recent accident at Port Westward, which dented an oil tanker car, was not a “minor incident” as characterized by the Port of St. Helens. It was a very timely and fortunate wake up call.

n Exactly what types and volumes of oil are transferred at the Port Westward facility? Exactly how many of the dangerous DOT-111 oil tankers are they handling there each month?

n What is Global’s precise emergency evacuation plan or emergency preparedness plan in the event of a large-scale disaster? These too are a form of “insurance” for the community, and should be considered as part of Global’s cost of conducting risky business at Port Westward.

n Exactly what equipment does Global have in place to contain an oil spill into the Columbia River at Port Westward?

n What is the exact nature and frequency of drills Global conducts in which fire suppression and spill containment capabilities are practiced and tested?

n Who actually owns the oil in the tanker cars that pass through our communities? Who is responsible for damages caused by an accident before Global takes possession of the product at Port Westward?

This list is not exhaustive, but is certainly a reasonable place to start immediately. I request that you immediately act on them, and in the process, begin to rebuild the trust we citizens placed in you to be proactive stewards of this County that we love.

Danner Christensen is a member of Envision Columbia County, a newly formed group aimed at promoting a positive vision for Columbia County. The submitted commentary is endorsed by 21 co-signing members of Envision Columbia County.