Coming to a Point - What drives the need for oil shipment facilities

Economic development vs. environment. It’s a conflict that will never go away. And, accidents like the one in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, don’t exactly calm the controversy.

We may have trains just like the one that caused extensive damage in that small Canadian town running through the Harbor in the near future. That recent disaster certainly gives me pause.

I, for one, am not sure oil shipments into Grays Harbor are worth the hassle for the relatively small amount of jobs they may create, not to mention the danger the volume of shipments creates environmentally.

But I also have no illusions about the fact that we as a country — and frankly a world — are not giving up our dependence on oil any time soon, and facilities like these are needed. Sadly, we can’t just turn off the spout and start riding our bikes. We have an oil problem, but we also have no realistic intention of kicking the habit in a large, measurable way in the foreseeable future.

To be fair, aside from a glycerin tank explosion at the Imperium facility in 2009, the safety record for both Imperium and Westway Terminals has been good.

But an explosion is a pretty big aside, isn’t it?

The point is that accidents rarely happen because of normal, day-to-day operations. It’s always the unforeseen circumstances that cause calamities. In Imperium’s case, Department of Labor &Industries investigators found that employees introduced 21 times the amount of sulfuric acid into a glycerin tank than a particular process called for, creating an “exothermic reaction” and ensuing explosion that sent pieces of the tank flying and a resounding boom across Hoquiam and Aberdeen.

Frankly, we were lucky nobody was seriously injured.

Can you ever really plan for someone over doing it with sulfuric acid by that much? I’ve had some pretty messy cooking experiments myself, but though my family might call them hazardous, they certainly didn’t require a HazMat response. And, nobody was regulating me.

So, when you look at something like oil shipments of this volume, you have to weigh the potential damage of the completely unforeseen against the gains you hope to get from the shipments if all goes according to plan. It’s simple risk-reward, but the stakes are a lot higher.

It’s not the number of train cars, per se, that I’m worried about. If all goes as planned and safety measures take care of most of the possible hiccups, one exhausted, overworked train conductor can still cover Elma with oil. It’s not the fact that the oil has to be shipped out, but that one ship grounding could decimate the Harbor’s aquatic economy for decades.

But the oil has to be transported somehow. If it’s by ship, then ships travel the water, and coastal waterways are the only place to do it. Without a pipeline, the oil has to get to port somehow, and by train is as good a way as any.

To say “not on our Harbor” is simply kicking the can down the road to another port of call. That’s not environmentally conscious, it’s environmentally selfish.

So where’s the balance? Pipelines? Elevated, fully environmentally sealed train tracks and ships wrapped in super strength Hefty bags? Or is it forcing people to cut their oil use? Requiring people to drive hybrids? Limiting each family to one car? Installing electric buses in every corner of the country?

I don’t know the answers, I really don’t. All I know is that every morning, just like most of you, I climb into my non-hybrid car and marvel at the beauty of Grays Harbor on my way to work. I don’t mind seeing tanks and silos rising out of the borders of the Port Industrial Road. They really don’t bother me — in fact, in a way, they add to the diversity of the shoreline.

The challenge is that both sides of the spectrum have a point. We need jobs. We also need a clean Harbor. At what cost — for creating the jobs or keeping the Harbor pristine — is the question we need to answer together.

But, until we stop climbing into our SUVs, the argument about oil isn’t going away. The need for oil shipments is driven by our own dependence, not the evil oil companies, the government or some wild conspiracy between the two. It’s our fault.

Maybe I should ride my bike to the next forum on oil shipments out of Grays Harbor. Then I might feel a bit more justified in my opinions.

Dan Jackson, The Daily World’s city editor, can be reached at 537-3929, or by email at djackson@thedailyworld.com.


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