Washington regulator unaware of oil train consultant’s connections

Repost from The Oregonian / OregonLive
[Editor:  The consultant’s connections with BNSF were noted nearly a month ago here and in Curtis Tate’s McClatchy DC report.  On November 24 Tate wrote, “The rail spill analysis portion of the Washington state draft document was written in part by three consultants who are former employees of BNSF and its predecessor, Burlington Northern. In addition to the state agency for which they prepared the analysis, their clients include BNSF and the Port of Vancouver.”  I  understand that the Washington agency that hired the consultant, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, was asked about the possible conflict of interest in advance of publication of Tate’s article, but they never got back to him.  Staff at the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council should have been aware well in advance of the Oregonian story.  – RS]

Washington regulator unaware of oil train consultant’s connections

By Rob Davis, Dec. 17, 2015, updated Dec.18, 2015 9:44 AM
vancouver oil train
An oil train parked outside Vancouver, Wash., in 2014. A terminal proposed there would bring four oil trains to the city each day. (Rob Davis/Staff)

A consulting firm that helped write a report underestimating the risks of catastrophic spills from a proposed Vancouver oil train terminal has worked for two groups that will gain financially if the project moves forward.

Stephen Posner, the Washington energy regulator who approved the company’s hiring, didn’t know about all those connections until The Oregonian/OregonLive told him. But he did not answer repeated questions about whether he would investigate further.

Three of the four authors who wrote the risk analysis for Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council are former executives of BNSF Railway Co. The railroad would move oil trains to the Vancouver terminal.

The authors’ company, MainLine Management, lists BNSF as a client on its website.

MainLine, which didn’t respond to repeated queries, recently worked for another project supporter: the Port of Vancouver, which owns the land where the terminal would be built.

Much remains unclear about MainLine’s relationships with BNSF and the port. It is not known whether BNSF is a current MainLine client. It’s also unclear whether MainLine’s past work for the port would constitute a conflict.

Washington law prohibits the energy council from hiring consultants with a significant conflict of interest with a project’s applicant or others involved.

MainLine finished its work for the port before it was hired to analyze the terminal. The port awarded a $121,000 contract to MainLine in April 2013 to analyze part of its freight rail system serving the oil train terminal. A port spokeswoman said the final payment was sent to MainLine Sept. 25, 2014, four months before the firm was hired to analyze oil spill risks.

The relationships raise questions about the thoroughness of Washington’s review of the experts it’s using to independently evaluate the Vancouver oil terminal.

The $210 million terminal proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Services is the highest profile project pending before the Washington energy council.

The small agency is designed to be a one-stop permitting shop for major energy projects, studying their impacts and recommending a decision to Gov. Jay Inslee. The governor has final approval.

Posner, the agency’s manager, approved hiring MainLine. He said he was unaware the firm listed BNSF as a client until The Oregonian/OregonLive told him.

But neither Posner nor an agency spokeswoman, Amanda Maxwell, would commit to inquiring further about whether the company has a current connection with BNSF.

Before MainLine was hired, Posner said he discussed the company with Washington’s lead consultant, Cardno. He said his agency relied on Cardno to vet MainLine’s clients and past work.

How did Cardno review MainLine’s potential conflicts? That’s unclear. Posner told The Oregonian/OregonLive to direct that question to Cardno, which didn’t immediately respond.

Cardno has provided written assurance that its subcontractors, including MainLine, are forbidden to discuss the terminal with any outside party, Maxwell said.

“This written assurance provided by Cardno is the basis for trusting in the credibility of the work being performed,” she said.

When we asked Posner whether he was concerned that MainLine could have a conflict, the spokeswoman, Maxwell, interrupted, saying it was inappropriate for him to comment.

“Without having the information, it’s not something he could put in context,” she said.

The agency should have that knowledge and be able to answer such a question, said Robert Stern, a good government advocate who helped write California’s post-Watergate conflict of interest law. He said the energy agency’s review appeared inadequate.

“Maybe they don’t have any conflicts, but how do you know?” Stern said. “There should be something in writing saying we have no conflicts of interest.”

Both BNSF and the Port of Vancouver stand to benefit financially from the project’s construction. The port estimates netting $45 million in lease revenue from the project over 10 years. BNSF has rallied supporters to send comments to the energy council praising the project, saying its construction would strengthen the rail company’s customer base.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, didn’t specifically answer a question about whether MainLine is currently under contract with the railroad.

“BNSF does not discuss specific relationships involving contract companies,” Melonas said by email, “however MainLine Management Inc. has worked with Northwest agencies providing modeling on rail related projects.”

If built, the Vancouver project would be the Pacific Northwest’s largest oil train terminal, capable of unloading 15 million gallons of oil from four trains daily. The oil would be put on barges and sent to coastal refineries.

It has drawn strong opposition from Vancouver elected officials and environmental groups amidst a string of fiery oil train explosions nationwide since 2013.

The report co-authored by MainLine lowballed those risks. It called a 2013 oil train spill in Aliceville, Alabama the worst on record, using it to analyze impacts of a disaster in the Pacific Northwest. The study said a slightly larger spill is “the most credible or realistic” worst-case scenario.

But a far larger spill has already happened. An out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Quebec in July 2013, fueling a raging inferno that killed 47 people and leveled part of a small Canadian town.

The analysis incorrectly said the Quebec accident spilled just 36,000 gallons of crude. Far more did. Canadian safety regulators concluded 1.5 million gallons escaped from tank cars. Much of it burned in the resulting fire.

Just a third as much oil spilled in the Alabama accident.

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