Gambling with House Money

Go inside the trial of Tesoro-Savage, a crude oil shipping terminal proposed for the banks of the Columbia River.

Earthjustice is working to stop Tesoro-Savage, a crude oil shipping terminal proposed for the banks of the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington.
Earthjustice is working to stop Tesoro-Savage, a crude oil shipping terminal proposed for the banks of the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington. (Image courtesy of Port of Vancouver USA)

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When is a proposed project too risky, too much of a roll of the dice? Put another way, how much risk should communities and the environment be expected to bear when the reward goes solely to a private corporation, especially when that corporation is willing to gamble because its own resources are not at risk? These questions have come to life in the trial over approval or denial of the proposed Tesoro-Savage oil shipping terminal in Vancouver, Washington.

The marathon, five-week Tesoro-Savage trial in front of a council of Washington state regulators ended on July 29. At this hearing, the council members heard witnesses, read testimony and reviewed exhibits about the project’s potential harms and risks, and whether there is a need for the largest oil shipping terminal in North America. Much of the testimony focused on the devastating impacts that even a small oil spill in the Columbia River would have on the river, the fish and the people of the region—whether that spill came from an oil train derailment, an accident at the storage facility or the grounding of an oil tanker navigating the river.

Representing eight environmental and community groups from across the state and right next to the terminal site, we presented and cross-examined witnesses, crafted arguments, and coordinated with our allies. Our partners included three cities, a longshoreman’s union local, the county, a state agency, the Umatilla and Yakama Tribes, a tribal fishing commission, a business developer and the Washington Attorney General through his statutorily appointed Counsel for the Environment.

By the end, council members heard more than 80 witnesses testify about oil spill risk, train derailments, seismic hazards, emergency responses, air emissions, public health impacts, community concerns, environmental justice, tribal fishing and cultural sites and harm to salmon, sturgeon and the Columbia River; in a word—everything. In the process, everyone with an interest in the terminal, the river and the region testified: tribal leaders, city managers, fire-chiefs, oil spill response planners, fish biologists and experts in air pollution, civil engineering, insurance and risk assessment. The council also heard from economists with expertise in natural resource damages, secondary economic impacts of oil spills and oil supply and demand on the West Coast. Several witnesses presented personal accounts of the recent Mosier, Oregon, oil train derailment and its fiery aftermath.

If you’re curious about how such a hearing goes, you can click here for daily hearing footage.

Earthjustice is uniquely able to handle this kind of complicated and extended trial. Because we represent our clients for free, the costs of such a hearing are limited to paying for expert witnesses and other direct expenses. Those costs are tiny compared to the expense of hiring a law firm for such a long and complex hearing. (Our rough estimate is that Tesoro-Savage spent over $2 million presenting at this hearing alone.) Thank you to Earthjustice’s contributors for giving us the means to do this work, to go toe-to-toe with big oil companies—some of the deepest pockets there are—and to present a compelling case for why this project should be denied.

As we told the council members on the last day of the hearing, even Tesoro-Savage agrees there are risks to its proposal. The crucial difference, however, is how much risk each side is willing to bear. Tesoro-Savage is willing to take more risk precisely because it is gambling with house money—and the house here is the environment and people of Washington. What Tesoro-Savage offers is all risk and no reward. We’ll continue to fight this oil terminal proposal with a further legal briefing in August, detailed comments on draft air and water permits in the fall and next legal steps, if necessary, after the council’s final recommendation to Governor Jay Inslee, which is expected around the end of 2016.

Kristen works in the Northwest regional office in Seattle, WA. As an outdoor enthusiast, she brings passion to protecting our national forests and grasslands from destructive practices like road building, logging and development.

A senior attorney based in Seattle, Janette works on cases in the Northwest region, as well as national water and wetland matters.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.