It all came down to oil at a forum on the Port of Grays Harbor Commission candidates. Incumbent and current Port Commission President Chuck Caldwell said he favors the growth that could come with crude oil businesses, and challenger Ron Figlar-Barnes flatly denounced that kind of expansion.
Caldwell and Figlar-Barnes answered questions from a crowd of about 35 hosted by the League of Women Voters at the First Baptist Church in Hoquiam on Wednesday.
Caldwell told the crowd he wants to see even more growth at the Port. When he first ran for the commission 12 years ago, he said, “The vision I had for the Port of Grays Harbor was to have the Port become more diversified. The forest products industry was in great decline.”
Two terms later, “I feel the promise has been kept.”
Private investment in Port property now exceeds $200 million, and vessel calls and employment have risen dramatically.
“Still, there is much more work to be done, and opportunities to expand. Growth and progress don’t happen overnight,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell, a Navy veteran, owns Price & Price Real Estate Inc. in Montesano.
Figlar-Barnes works as an environmental coordinator for the Skokomish Tribe and lives in Elma.
“I totally respect the work that he has accomplished, and we just have one major difference between the two of us. I’m definitely not wanting to disrupt or take apart the fine work that has been accomplished,” Figlar-Barnes said. “I respect this man. But I’m going to beat him.”
Asked what the most fundamental difference between them was, the essential answer was simple.
“Both of us care about Grays Harbor, so I don’t think that there’s any difference there,” Caldwell said. “He don’t think we should have crude-by-rail.”
He said he has toured ports in California currently serving crude-by-rail businesses, and said he’s satisfied that modern safety procedures and technology would be sufficient to prevent a disaster.
“None of them have had a problem,” Caldwell said.
He said Figlar-Barnes’ anti-crude oil stance sounded like it extended to petroleum products.
“That would mean to me that if he gets elected, he’ going to push to shut down Imperium and Westway because they are petroleum-based,” Caldwell said, referring to biofuel businesses Westway Terminals and Imperium Renewables.
“I am not interested in shutting down Imperium or Westway, that’s not part of my focus to do that,” Figlar-Barnes said. “One of the things I was proudest of that the Port has accomplished was bringing Imperium into the process — biofuel, a green-energy company that was really going to make a difference in the process. That was a big deal.”
On the potential impacts of rail cars carrying crude oil through the county, Figlar-Barnes said the rail infrastructure is simply not good enough to handle it.
“This is not just sweet oil. It’s the stuff that destroyed a little town in Quebec, or at least tore out the entire center,” he said, talking about Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a runaway train derailed after gaining speed down a hill.
“I feel that our system, according to the Federal Rail Commission, is more than adequate to handle this. Our green cars weigh more than our crude-by-rail cars, per poundage, and we’re using them every day,” Caldwell said. “We sure don’t have 60-mile-per-hour hills to come down like they did in Canada.”
“I don’t want Elma to have to deal with that, I don’t want Montesano to deal with that, I don’t want Aberdeen and Hoquiam to deal with that, and that’s why I say no,” Figlar-Barnes said.