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Protect taxpayers from oil operations liability

Danner Christensen is the co-founder of the activist group, Envision Columbia County. He lives in St. Helens.


Columbia County commissioners Tony Hyde, Henry Heimuller and Earl Fisher deserve commendation for their recent act of meaningful stewardship on behalf of the entire Columbia County community.

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - ChristensenThe Board of Commissioners recently sent a letter to oil transporters Global Partners LP requesting answers to questions about the limits of Global’s liability responsibility, as well as its safety procedures in its operations at Port Westward in Clatskanie.

In its response, Global summarized information about activities involving safety training and procedures at Port Westward. It offered some clarifying information regarding the ownership of the oil and the potential liabilities of Global and the railroads. The section discussing the complex issue of who actually owns the oil and the railcars was useful.

Regarding the two most important questions, Global provided a “response” about the amounts of liability insurance for human injury and environmental and property damage potentially resulting from operations at Port Westward. A response is very different from a meaningful, informative answer. Global stated it does not release such specific information to the public.

Global stated that outside professionals review their liability insurance to “ensure protection for the company and its unitholders.”

The public shouldn’t be surprised or offended that Global protects its financial interests. Nor should Global executives be surprised or offended when the county commissioners request specific answers to insurance questions to protect taxpayers’ from financial liability for corporate profit-making operations.

Global’s letter doesn’t address the second important question. Namely, does it effectively shield itself from liability responsibility from its Port Westward operations through its subsidiary relationship to Columbia Pacific Bio Refinery? Global’s reluctance to answer both questions is troubling. A simple personal example illustrates why.

A flat, leaking roof covers my deck. I know the repair will require a contractor to lay down a sheeting material with a gas-fired torch. I will not allow him to perform this work until he provides me with a copy of his liability insurance policy, including the dollar limits should a catastrophic accident occur from his work. This is simply proactive stewardship of my family and property.

Similarly, the Board of Commissioners should extend its recent act of stewardship and require Global to provide specific information regarding its liability coverage for Port Westward operations. Should they feel satisfied, the commissioners can then guarantee to the people of this county and this state that taxpayers will not have to pay the expense should large, uncovered liabilities occur from Global operations at Port Westward in the future.

I imagine that so far the commissioners’ relationship with Global executives has been warm and cordial. Global twice expressed gratitude to the board for its support of Global’s local plans in its letter. Corporate gratitude is also expressed through campaign donations to politicians. According to public records, two executives from Global contributed relatively small amounts to Commissioner Heimuller’s recent election campaign. Heimuller recently assured voters in a Spotlight article that any donor thinking their contribution would lead to special favors or consideration should ask for a refund.

Mentioning these corporate contributions here is not an attempt to “smear” Heimuller, question his integrity, or hint darkly at some possible corruption. Of course, voters know that campaign contributions are not given for specific favors in the future since such quid pro quo arrangements are illegal. Rather they are given for past support and actions, with the wish to see them continue in the future. Acceptance of them generates doubt in voters’ minds that the public’s interests are the politician’s true priority.

County officials in Albany, New York, also initially enjoyed a warm, cordial relationship with Global. When those elected officials acted to slow Global’s expansion plans until important safety questions were answered, the thin, cordial veneer of the relationship quickly vanished, and Global threatened to sue them. To their credit, the public officials refused to back down and abandon the stewardship of their county and are continuing their proactive stewardship to this day.

Finally, Columbia County citizens should ask our Board of Commissionrs to extend its recent act of stewardship to the next difficult and challenging level. The board should continue to pursue specific answers to the liability coverage concerns. To repair public trust, they should return any campaign contributions from Global executives and not accept them in the future. They should accept contributions only from the truly important stakeholders: locally based businesses, organizations and citizens. Citizens should request these same actions from Wayne Mayo, Heimuller’s opponent in the November election.

As the county officials in New York discovered, this next step takes courage. Acting to protect taxpayers’ interests may well result in a sharp chill in the Board of Commissioenrs current cordial relationship with Global.

Perhaps embracing that next step will also begin a long-awaited thaw in the skeptical hearts and minds of taxpayers and voters.