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ConnectOregon a divisive issue for some

The Oregon Transportation Commission met yesterday, July 17, to take public testimony on three publicly funded projects that would unquestionably make it easier and more profitable for projected coal and oil transloading companies to transport their commodities through Columbia County.

The crux of the argument from opponents of those controversial projects is that widespread public approval for the coal and oil industries’ presence in Oregon is absent and, as a result, public money, to the tune of $7 million, should not be invested to aid coal and oil interests.

The grant mechanism is the Oregon Department of Transportation’s ConnectOregon V, which is composed of state dollars from a lottery-based bond initiative. This year, the Legislature earmarked $42 million for ConnectOregon projects, money allocated via a series of local and state committee recommendations for improvements in rail, bicycle, marine, air and transit infrastructure. The purpose, according to ODOT’s website about ConnectOregon, is to “ensure Oregon’s transportation system is strong, diverse and efficient.” Also, the website states that all Oregonians are intended to be the beneficiaries of the projects, and that, “People and businesses, as well as the environment, will benefit by having a more efficient, productive transportation system that improves Oregon’s business environment, ultimately leading to more jobs and a more sound economy.”

As much as we agree with the economic development goals advanced via the ConnectOregon program, there are legitimate concerns.

One concern is that Global Partners LP, the company at the helm of the Bakken crude transloading facility at Port Westward, managed to sidestep public consideration for its project by converting a defunct ethanol manufacturing plant at Port Westward into a facility, called the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, for receiving crude oil and placing it on vessels for transport to Washington-based refineries. As recently as March, Global Partners was hit with a $117,000 fine from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for the alleged practice of transporting far more crude than its permit allowed — a permit, it should be mentioned, that was expedited to allow shipments of oil, and not ethanol, due to DEQ’s position there would be a minimal effect on pollution. Global Partners denies the violation and has said it would appeal the DEQ notice.

Though the pollution effect might be minimal as the permit is concerned, the effect on train traffic through Columbia County has been substantial.

Secondly, Bakken crude oil transport by rail has a sketchy track record, especially for an industry in its infancy. Beyond the most notable disaster in Canada, where 47 people died after a runaway train carrying Bakken crude exploded in the town of Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013, there have been domestic derailments and explosions that continue to plague emergency management planners and transportation analysts to this day. Yet, seemingly Oregon is quickly moving forward to fund projects, including significant rail improvements in Rainier, that would make transportation of volatile Bakken crude oil faster and more voluminous.

Another ConnectOregon project calls for $4 million for the extension and reconstruction of a dock at Port Westward. Critics point out that the money is being allocated to aid the coal aspirations of Ambre Energy, the Australia-based company proposing to transport coal by rail from the Powder River Basin area of Wyoming and Montana to the Port of Morrow at The Dalles, and from there to ship it by barge to Port Westward to be transloaded onto oceangoing vessels.

The question and consideration for these projects, ultimately, is whether the companies — and not Oregonians and the residents of Columbia County — are going to be the ultimate beneficiaries.

We agree the rail situation on Rainier’s A Street is horrendous. It is a disaster waiting to happen, and there is no doubt it must be improved before someone is seriously injured or killed. Conversely, it’s a sad statement that it took a highly volatile cargo such as Bakken crude oil to make it happen.

Likewise, we would like to see Port Westward prosper with the development of industries that deliver family-wage jobs and have a long-term, responsible business model that both aids the economy and the quality of life in Columbia County. Undoubtedly, the improvement and extension of the dock at Port Westward is necessary for the industrial park to prosper, and we gather its presence could aid efforts to recruit other industries, such as a proposed methanol production facility (see “China on the Columbia,” A1).

But the timing for funding these projects, with the promise of fast and big volumes of crude oil especially, is unfortunate. Though the oil and rail industry seem to be adjusting their processes to make Bakken crude transports safer, we would like further assurances and restrictions on the volume of oil transports until such a time has passed that proves the safety measures and processes are effective.

Equally, we believe companies benefiting from public investment such as ConnectOregon must be beholden to the public. A government that races to aid the efforts of those companies at the possible expense to public safety is sending a message of desperation and indifference to concerns beyond the economic payout.

The improvements in Rainier and at Port Westward may very well be necessary, but how our local, state and federal legislators ultimately regulate the use of that publicly funded infrastrucre is something in which each of us should have a voice.