While the Port of Grays Harbor has a number of projects and challenges ahead, a Daily World Editorial Board discussion this week between Incumbent Commissioner Chuck Caldwell and his challenger Ron Figlar-Barnes frequently came back, as it has through much of the campaign, to crude oil shipping proposals from Westway Terminals, Imperium Renewables and U.S. Development.
“I think there’s several issues associated with it,” Figlar-Barnes began. “Sea level rise is one of them. Having a hundred million gallons of oil down in the estuary is not a good thing. We’re also in a tsunami area.”
It isn’t just coastal earthquakes that could cause a problem, he added. Earthquakes in other areas on land could be an issue.
“If we have a tsunami, oil is going to be the least of our problems, because every sewer system clear up to Elma is on the flood plain and there’s going to be so much pollution,” Caldwell rebutted.
The final engineering of the oil storage tanks is still a long way off, but Caldwell said they would sit on 12-inch pilings, some 150-200 feet deep.
“There isn’t a building in Aberdeen or Montesano that’s that well built,” he said.
Figlar-Barnes said the whole host of environmental concerns surrounding crude oil’s use and extraction plays into his reason for running.
“How the oil is being extracted from the Dakotas is pretty weird,” he added.
“I know what the Harbor needs, and they need jobs, they need safe jobs,” Caldwell said. “My job isn’t looking into fracking in North Dakota or South Dakota, mine is to see what I can do best for the people of Grays Harbor and what the best route is for them to go. I have total confidence in our federal management, our state management, our city management. They’ve already sent it back for review to have oil come here.”
“It has the potential to cause explosions. It doesn’t have to be a train going 60 mph, it doesn’t have to be trains going 22 mph,” Figlar-Barnes said, referring to oil train derailments in Canada where explosions have occurred. The trains in both cases were also carrying other combustible materials.
Caldwell said he has toured several ports where crude oil is shipped and is convinced it’s a safe option.
“It will be a big project. But it will not be a bad project. Big is not always bad,” Caldwell said. “I just feel like technology has changed so much, we’re becoming safe to do that.”
The rail infrastructure is another issue related to increased traffic of any commodity to the Port, but particularly sparked by the crude oil proposals. Track runs through Elma and Montesano and, despite a study in the works with the Grays Harbor Council of Governments, still sometimes cuts off the Olympic Gateway Mall in Aberdeen.
“Twenty-five additional trans a week going back and forth through Elma, Montesano and Hoquiam and Aberdeen is a difficult thing for the economy,” Figlar-Barnes said, calling for a study on the point at which rail traffic becomes a detriment to the economy.
The Federal Rail Administration is chiefly responsible for regulating the railroads, but Caldwell said the Port has been able to work with local railroads to address issues in the past. “You’re not going to get the federal government to step up and spend the money until the demand is there. … I feel very confident if we get the demand, we can make the change. I feel the Port has the ability to handle it,” Caldwell said.
“I just don’t agree with that idea of if we build it, they will come,” Figlar-Barnes said.
An economic study paid for by Westway and Imperium assessing the impacts of their projects projected 148 jobs would be directly created, including marine and rail jobs.
Asked if that was enough in his view, Caldwell said, “Hell no. … But 150 jobs, I think, is a big deal, and this could have more jobs to come along with it.”
Figlar-Barnes pressed for specifics on what each job would entail, and its compensation.
“You’re talking beans,” Caldwell said with a wave of his hand.
“That’s the difference between the two of us,” Figlar-Barnes said, shrugging.
Figlar-Barnes acknowledged he didn’t have such specifics for a tourism-based plan he espoused in the meeting. He has suggested encouraging cooperation among Grays Harbor cities and building complementary attractions and accommodations. “We can achieve a more stable environment and bring in the jobs that will be here long-term,” Figlar-Barnes said.
“I cannot in my life imaging trading janitorial jobs and bedmaking jobs in the motel industry for high-paying jobs. That doesn’t even make sense,” Caldwell said.
Through his candidacy, Figlar-Barnes said he’s found many people have concerns about the Port’s communication. Complaints about the apparent rush of the Walmart expansion project and the seemingly sudden appearance first of a coal shipping proposal then the oil proposals were chief among his examples.
“I don’t think Ron quite understands how big business works,” Caldwell said. “There’s a privacy element there.”
Caldwell said in the case of the Walmart expansion, he didn’t know what western areas of the county thought of it, but in in his East County district “I had probably two people come in and say, ‘I’m unhappy about this.’ The rest of them were as happy as a clam at high tide.”
“You take Walmart out of the equation, Aberdeen would be in dire, dire straits,” he added.
Figlar-Barnes praised the work of the commission on bringing the Highway 520 Bridge pontoon project to the area and encouraging the growth of the automotive shipping business.
“Those aren’t shabby achievements, those are pretty damn good ones. I think the Port has a lot to be proud of,” he said.
But, Figlar-Barnes added, “Satsop needs to have some work done on it because it’s failing right now.”
Caldwell said the commission is working on a buyer for the NewWood facility and some infrastructure projects, including a $3.5 million sewer project in next year’s budget.
“It was not in as good a shape as I thought it was when we took it on,” Caldwell said. “But I think … by the time we’ve had it a year we’ll have everything fixed into place and moving again.”
Brionna Friedrich: 360-537-3933 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_Brionna on Twitter.