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Commission sounds alarm on coal, oil transport

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO - A barge makes its way up the Columbia River. Barges are proposed as a means to transport fracked shale oil through the Gorge.The Columbia River Gorge Commission has passed a resolution against the transport of coal and crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge in Washington and Oregon.

The Gorge Commission also sent letters to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee asking state leaders to “fully assess the risk of coal and oil transport in the Gorge,” and to develop policies to protect the communities and habitat it would impact.

The letters cited risks from loss of tribal and public access to the Columbia River, to noise and coal dust threatening air and water quality, and worse, a potential rail disaster.

“A single ignited car, for example, could immediately devastate lives, resources and infrastructure on both sides of the Columbia River,” the Commission wrote.

Nathan Baker, staff attorney at Friends of the Columbia Gorge, which sent a press release in support of the commission, said health and environmental threats from an increase in coal and oil trains are already occurring in the Northwest.

And there are proposals to bring more oil trains and barges through the Gorge, he said.

One of the largest projects is Tsoro Savage’s proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

Baker said the amount of oil Savage plans to transport through the Gorge on four to six trains a day is massive. At 360,000 barrels of oil a day, he estimates it would transport half the daily volume of the Keystone pipeline project, which is proposed to run from western Canada to the Gulf Coast in Texas. The trains would carry fracked shale oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, and then transport it by barge on the Columbia River.

Fracked shale oil has been extracted from shale or sedimentary rock through a high- pressure chemical process. Often, substances such as propane and butane are left in the shale oil that is carried on rail cars, said Ryan Rittenhouse, conservation organizer at Friends of the Gorge. Rittenhouse said the chemical composition is more volatile the pure oil, making it prone to explosion if the train derails.

In just the past year alone, there have been six derailment explosions involving such trains, according to the Gorge Commission, one of which killed 47 people in Quebec last summer.

The oil terminal project is under review by Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, a regulatory agency responsible for state permitting of large energy projects. The agency will make a recommendation to the governor, who will make the final decision, Baker said, on whether the project is acceptable.

Home to more than 75,000 residents and millions of visitors, people from all over the world come to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area for outdoor activities from hiking and mountain biking to sailing, kiteboarding, kayaking and fishing.

Last month, the city of Vancouver passed a resolution against the transport of shale oil through the city, and specifically, rejected Tesoro Savage’s plan to develop what would be the Pacific Northwest’s largest oil terminal.

The Columbia River Gorge Commission’s resolution calls for a moratorium on all new fossil fuel transport through the Gorge until a joint risk assessment and mitigation plan are completed.

It also calls for “significantly” increased safety and operational standards for rail cars, and urges both Oregon and Washington to legally protect the Gorge using National Scenic Area standards.

The commission, along with the Columbia River Treaty Tribes, has offered to work with state agencies, and respectfully requested to meet with the offices of both governors by “no later than Sept. 30, 2014, to discuss and determine appropriate state and commission actions.”

The Columbia River Gorge Commission was established in 1987 to develop policies and programs to protect the scenic, natural, cultural and recreational resources of the Gorge.

The commission’s headquarters are at 57 N.E. Wauna Ave. in White Salmon, Wash.