A public workshop to address three current proposals to ship North American-produced crude oil by rail and sea through the Port of Grays Harbor had its raucous moments Wednesday night when questions were shouted from the standing-room crowd of at least 250 people at the Aberdeen Log Pavilion.
But even those with calmer voices asked pointed questions wanting to know how the Port Commission was going to go about letting the public have its say.
“How are you three (Port commissioners) going to find out how the community feels about these changes … how are you going to survey us, how are you going to hear our concerns? Because they’re real?” asked one woman near the front.
Seating was limited and an elbow-to-elbow standing room crowd spilled out the door. Many people took a look at the size of the crowd and left.
During the Port-sponsored session, Port Executive Director Gary Nelson laid out the three proposals, currently in different stages of development, that are being made by existing Port tenants Westway Terminal Co. and Imperium Renewables, and a third by Houston-backed US Development that is expected to be the largest potential so-called bulk liquid storage and shipment facility for crude oil.
Some members of the audience, however, wanted to hear directly from the companies, which had representatives on hand at tables ringing the outside of the room where they did stay for more than an hour afterward and answered specific questions about their plans.
“We have not handled crude oil before,” said Imperium founder CEO and President John Plaza in an interview while several others from the company passed out information. “But it’s important to understand that our current permit allows us to store diesel, petroleum-diesel and biodiesel, and the laws we follow, both state and federal, are the exact same criteria that we follow for crude oil.”
“Really it’s not a new business for us, it’s just a different product,” Plaza added.
In addition to the company proponents, representatives of the City of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology also were in attendance at a shared table to answer questions about the environmental review process and permit process they will be doing jointly as any of the three projects goes forward. The U.S. Coast Guard, Greater Grays Harbor Inc. and several other agencies participated, and the audience included all three Grays Harbor PUD commissioners, mayors of several Harbor cities and and environmental groups.
If environmental impact statements are required — a strong likelihood, according to some of the officials at the workshop — the public will have a more formal comment period where testimony can be submitted in writing.
Despite the complaints about the format of the public part of the workshop, some questions did get answered and there were a number of details that had yet to be made public, which were presented by Nelson as well as the company officials later in the evening.
Most notably, were specific details about the Imperium proposal, which is expected to be made formal by next week. Also, a US Development official said his company is definitely going forward with preliminary plans to study Terminal 3 as a crude oil facility and hopes to have a request to start the permit process by March.
Nelson emphasized that most of the oil will have to be shipped to U.S. refineries by barge or tankers because it was produced in American oil fields and federal law requires it to be refined in this country. Single-hull vessels are excluded from operating in U.S. waters, Nelson noted, and the rail tankers are designed to meet standards set by the federal Department of Transportation.
“One of the things we found is that the liquid bulk industry in general is one of the most regulated industries we have worked with in trying to attract new business,” Nelson said. “It’s incredibly, intensely watched and regulated by both state and federal regulators.”
The question Nelson first addressed before it was asked: Why Grays Harbor?
“I get this quite often.” Nelson said, listing the attraction the oil transport, rail and shipping companies see in the Port.
“At lot of it is location, the proximity to the ocean,” Nelson said. “There are no bridges or obstacles between here and the ocean. Also, the Class 1 rails access from the Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad.”
In making the Port’s case for why it is prepared to handle such business, Nelson noted that Terminal 1 was developed as a bulk liquid facility, with a joint Port-city funding effort of about $3.5 million to convert it for such use.
“It’s currently very under-utilized,” Nelson said. The Westway and Imperium shipments would be at that terminal, which is on the east side of Hoquiam, while US Development would build an entirely new facility at Terminal 3 on the west end of the city.
Nelson also indicated the Port is equipped to handle the number of ships, adding that although Port business has been booming in recent years, ship traffic still is less now than in the 1990s.
The Port Commissioners — all three were in attendance — have directed that the projects should not “interfere with our existing customers’ ability to not just maintain their current level of business but also to grow,” Nelson said. Currently, the average is about one full unit train a day, Nelson said.
Several people in the audience were concerned about adding more rail traffic through Aberdeen. “We have asked the railroad to come up with kind of a benchmark plan,” he said of what rail traffic would look like if all three proposals were in operation. The railroad last year completed a passing track in Elma, and Nelson suggested rail and transportation improvements might be part of the investment from the companies involved.
Stating the case for the Port, Nelson said the new business fits with the agency’s mission, its master plan and its purpose to attract private investment.
“We’re not interested in just spending public money to build infrastructure. We’re doing that to ensure that our tenants or our customers follow suit and make investments so we know they are going to be here for the long term,” Nelson said.
Given a chance to ask questions of Nelson, citizens expressed concern about what would happen in a spill or accident and what safeguards were in place to ensure the companies were held liable for any potential environmental damage. Several were vocal about wanting officials from the company and others beside Nelson to address their questions.
Ocean Shores City Councilwoman Jackie Farra wanted to know more about the railcars and what sort of hulls the tankers had. Another citizen questioned what level of noise the added railcars would have. Fred Rapp of Elma wanted to know what refineries would be receiving the oil, noting the restrictions on oil produced in the U.S.
As Nelson searched for help with the answer, he explained that the representatives of the companies were available at tables set up around the room. That, however, caused several people to call out for more direct interaction.
“Well let’s hear from the companies, what do they have to say?” said Gary Murrell, Grays Harbor College history professor and president of the Grays Harbor Institute.
Aberdeen City Councilman John Erak wanted to know if the workshop was going to be the only forum to address such concerns.
“It most certainly would have to come before the commissioners in public session for any kind of a lease or use of Port rail,” Nelson said. “This is not part of any permitting process. This is an outreach on behalf of the Port.”
As some in the audience kept calling out for others to answer their questions, the question-and-answer portion ended with Port Commission President Chuck Caldwell taking the podium to field CynthiaMathern’s appeal about how the Port would address public concern.
If all the questions can’t be answered now, he said, “We’ll have to have another gathering.” That brought out the only round of applause for the night.
Afterward, Mathern of Aberdeen, who had several questions for Nelson, expressed dismay the shouted-out retorts prevented others from asking questions. She believes in trying to hold the Port more accountable as a public entity and wants the Port to be more open to public comment overall.
“It’s sad when there are a couple who can come and shut down the process because this is important,” she said. “Without the process, there is no moving forward. We need to move forward.”
Here are some other details that came out of the meeting that had not yet been made public:
• Imperium now is exercising a lease with the Port on 11 acres adjacent to its existing facility and in the next several days will submit permit applications for construction of new storage tanks, rail infrastructure and office space.
“The expansion permits would enable Imperium to store and transport a variety of liquid products in order to meet increasing customer demand for biofuels and petroleum products that are sourced from U.S. energy supplies,” said statement paper handed out by company officials at the workshop.
Plaza said the crude oil business would help stabilize Imperium and its workforce “because the biodiesel market has been all over the place. This is a great opportunity for us. … I appreciate there are concerns. We share those concerns. We maintain a very safe operation and we’re committed to doing the same, following all laws required by state and federal agencies to do this safely and smartly.”
• The Port is working with Willis Enterprises, which has a large wood chip facility at Terminal 3, to ensure it stays in operation there and that any US Development facility will incorporate the Willis facility into its layout.
• A Port-estimated job breakdown shows 100-plus permanent jobs at the sites if all three proposals go forward. Also, there would be 20-plus longshore jobs, and an estimated 5-15 pilot and tug jobs affiliated with the new business. Nelson noted there would be an additional number of temporary construction jobs as the facilities are built.
• The permanent investment figure used by Nelson was $100 million, and he noted the wages paid for Port-related jobs are typically much higher than the average in Grays Harbor County.
• One of the rail congestion solutions suggested by Nelson would be the potential for vehicle underpasses as what he said was an interim solution to the much larger issue of separation of the rail line from its current route that runs along the main highway and shopping center entering Aberdeen.