Oil-by-rail debate heats up in Columbia County

Some people have concerns about the possibility of more oil headed down the train tracks along Highway 30. (KATU Photo)

An international oil company wants to transport more types of oil through Columbia County, but environmentalists worry about a spill, or worse.

Global Partners is asking the Port of Columbia County to let it ship heavier oil to its terminal at Port Westward in Clatskanie. Essentially, that would let it deal with a wider range of oil types.

“The amendment simply provides flexibility as our marketplaces change. That flexibility may significantly increase investment at the Port and may generate jobs,” a company spokesperson said in an email statement.

As of now, Global Partners is only allowed to ship oil with an API gravity between 30 and 44. API. Gravity is a measure of how dense the oil is. The lower the number, the denser. An API of 10 will sink in water and it is extremely difficult to clean up in a spill.

Doug Hayes, executive director for the port, says they are considering allowing an API of 17 or 18.

“If it's a commodity that still remains on the surface, that can be identified, cordoned off and cleaned quickly, then I personally don't see an issue with it,” said Hayes.

The proposed change would not increase the existing rail traffic limit for Global Partners.

Nancy Ward lives on a boat along the Columbia River near Scappoose.

“I have a really big stake. This is what I look at every single day,” she said, pointing to the water.

Ward is also president of Clean Columbia County, an environmental group opposed to oil by rail through the area. She says locals were left in the dark and didn’t learn about these plans until recently. That’s part of the reason a decision by the port was pushed back until Dec. 12.

“Nowhere does anyone say this will not happen. Of course, they can't say that, we all know they can't say that,” she said. “How much of our county are the people in charge of the Port of Columbia County willing to put at risk?”

Ward worries about a spill into the Columbia River. She also worries about a derailment in a town like St. Helens or Scappoose, both of which are bisected by the railroad tracks.

“These tracks run by every single school in our county. These tracks run the entire length of the county. If there was a derailment followed by an explosion, it would be so catastrophic that there would be no amount of insurance that would cover the cost,” Ward said.

A train derailed in the city of Mosier in 2016, spilling 47,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil.

Steve Pegram, the Columbia County Emergency Management director, says they have discussed oil by rail with the port. He says they have a plan in place specifically for a derailment and subsequent spill. A Global Partners spokesperson says it has a plan in place and regularly trains should there be a spill.

Global Partners says the change could allow for up to 40 jobs in the Clatskanie area, an increase of 26. It also said it could lead to future investment in the county.

Hayes does not have a vote on the Port of Columbia County’s board, but he says this is something he supports.

“I think it’d be positive,” he said.

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