More details on crude oil shipping

After months of inquiries and speculation, U.S. Development Group presented more detailed answers to commonly asked questions about its proposed crude oil shipping operation through the Port of Grays Harbor.

Kevin LaBorne, U.S. Development’s business development manager, presented some new details to Port commissioners Tuesday morning. His company is one of three looking at shipping crude through the Port; the others, Westway Terminal Co. and Imperium Renewables, are existing Port tenants hoping to expand shipping operations at Terminal 2 in the heart of Port operations. U.S. Development’s Grays Harbor Rail Terminal proposal is for Terminal 3 near the Bowerman Field airport in Hoquiam and is expected to be the largest of the operations.

On the company’s plan for oil spill response, LaBorne said there would be equipment pre-positioned near the dock.

“We’re not sure at this point, given the tides out there and the flow, whether we’re going to be able to have boom around the vessel while it’s loading,” he said, but that’s something they’re looking into as a preventative measure.

A containment basin will go in around the unloading track, elevated walls or berms will be constructed around the tanks, and annual workshops will be held with staff and local emergency responders on how to use the on-site emergency equipment, according to a hand-out from LaBorne.

The train cars themselves will also be specially designed and re-inforced. The cars will have additional steel at the front, “so if there is a derailment and cars do collide, there is some extra support,” LaBorne said.

The valves on the bottom of the cars, or “belly valve,” will be equipped with “dry break” disconnect mechanisms to keep liquid from escaping if the hose breaks off or is removed while unloading. Drip pans will catch stray drops, and an emergency shut off valve uses automatic and manual triggers.

LaBorne noted that a petroleum car derailment in Maine last week illustrated the sturdiness of the cars.

“The regulator on site made what I thought was an interesting comment, that they were measuring the spill in drips and not gallons,” he said.

Port Commission President Chuck Caldwell asked about the fire danger of crude oil.

“It’s definitely less flammable than gasoline or methanol. Crude — it does burn but it’s not as flammable as other products,” LaBorne said.

In cases where crude tanks have ignited, there was some abnormality in the tanks or storage, he added. LaBorne also said crude oil is generally heavier and thicker than other products and so spills can be easier to contain.

Commissioner Jack Thompson asked how the rail traffic would affect Willis Enterprises, which has a large wood chip facility at Terminal 3.

“We’ve taken into consideration their current operation and their current lease agreement and come up with a plan that will have no impact to their current site,” LaBorne replied.

According to the hand-out, the Grays Harbor facility would handle up to 50,000 barrels, or roughly 2.1 million gallons, per day with one, 120-car train delivery every two days. Ship calls could range from 45-60 per year.

“The biggest concern that’s been expressed to me is the rail transit through communities. … Everyone’s concern is whether the rail is adequate to handle this volume of traffic,” Thompson said.

LaBorne had high praise for Genesee & Wyoming, Inc., which bought out RailAmerica in December of last year and now owns all the track in question.

The line is operated locally by the Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad.

“We had a good relationship with RailAmerica, but they’ve really stepped up a class in ownership with G&W,” LaBorne said. “They’re also considered the safest railroad, by measured standards, in the world.”

In Hoquiam, he said he knew they were working on reducing the impacts on the crossings at 5th, 8th and Adams streets, but didn’t have specific details on those plans or others for areas such as Elma, which has track through the middle of town.

“I know the railroad has been looking at it, we obviously have not been looking at it because we’ve been focusing on the T3 site,” LaBorne said.

To build the terminal site, U.S. Development expects about $50 million in capital investment to the community.

“The proposed facility is expected to provide a significant boost to the local economy initially through both the creation of construction jobs and the materials purchased during construction,” according to the hand-out.

After construction, 30-50 permanent, “family-wage” jobs are expected, and the company says it plans to hire locally.

Local longshore workers from ILWU Local No. 24 will handle the dock work for the facility.

In response to concerns about noise, LaBorne noted the site would incorporate natural noise barriers, such as trees and foliage. According to the hand-out the facility would have less noise in general than other rail yards, since the trains would come in as one unit and break off into 20-car units, minimizing noisy uncoupling. Train whistles won’t be necessary for movement on the site, and tracks will be continuously welded, avoiding the “clack” sound a train can make crossing older-style tracks.

Caldwell asked what might be done with the tanks in the future.

“What kind of life are you talking about with these tanks, and are these tanks usable for something else should this market flatten out?”

LaBorne estimated the tanks would last 25-30 years.

“They could fairly easily be converted to other commodities, I’m thinking biodiesel, ethanol, some of the lighter products,” he said.

LaBorne said the company hopes to open the facility within two years, by the first fiscal quarter of 2015.

During the public comment period, several people seemed satisfied with the answers given. Others still had reservations.

“There’s basically been a gold rush mentality with these three projects,” said Arnie Martin, Grays Harbor Audubon Society president. He announced a Citizens for a Clean Harbor meeting Wednesday, March 27, at the Elma High School Commons, 6:30 - 9:30 p.m.

Robin Moore of Hoquiam asked the commissioners to remain cautious.

“You all have the best of intentions, but human nature is eventually to take shortcuts, increase your profits,” she said.

“If one thing goes wrong, it’s so devastating. I just think you want to keep that in mind.”