Pipeline Safety a Concern at Oregon LNG Meeting

About fifty citizens were in attendance on January 29, 2015 at the Cabin in Vernonia during what was billed as an informational meeting hosted by the State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The project is being proposed by Oregon LNG and Oregon Pipeline, two related corporations that are currently seeking permits for the liquid natural gas processing project.

The project and permits are currently under review by several regulatory agencies.

OLNG,DEQMeeting-Crowd-webLocal citizens asked questions and raised concerns about the safety of a proposed natural gas high pressure pipeline that could be constructed near the Vernonia community and the accompanying export terminal in Warrenton.

The meeting was held to discuss the 401 water quality certification process for the Oregon LNG project which includes the export terminal and the eighty-five mile pipeline which crosses Columbia, Tillamook, and Clatsop Counties.  Citizens were encouraged to ask questions and provide comments on the proposed project, specifically relating to water quality.  According to the public notice inviting citizens to attend, the meeting was not intended to answer technical questions about the project.

Sara Christensen, DEQ’s 401 Water Quality Certification Coordinator, and Jennifer Purcell, Regional Coordinator for DEQ, were part of a panel who fielded questions from the audience.  The panel also included Mike Turaski, Chief of Portland Permits Section and Richard Chong, Project Manager, both from the US Army Corps of Engineers and Patrick Wingard from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.

The audience included Vernonia Mayor Josette Mitchell, Vernonia City Councilor Jill Hult, a representative  from US House Representative Suzanne Bonamici’s office and Dan Serres, Conservation Director for Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental watch dog group which has been following this project for many years.  No representative from Columbia County or state representative or senator’s offices were in attendance.

The six billion dollar project, in development since 2004, would include an LNG export terminal in Warrenton.  The project proposes taking natural gas obtained from Canada through the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” and transporting it across Washington through an expanded Williams Northwest Pipeline.  The pipeline would cross the Columbia River near Columbia City, OR and Woodland, WA and then traverse Columbia County in a thirty-six inch pipeline.  At the Warrenton plant the natural gas would be converted to liquefied natural gas in order to be shipped to potential Asian markets.

The pipeline crosses Rock Creek, the water source for the City of Vernonia, about four miles above the city intake.  It also crosses numerous other rivers and streams including the Nehalem River twice.  It mostly travels across sparsely populated areas owned by timber companies and only directly affects five landowners in Columbia County.

Opponents to the project have previously raised concerns that include: destruction of salmon habitat in the Columbia River and the loss of commercial fishing areas due to exclusion zones around the terminal; harm to the water quality of regional rivers and streams that the pipeline would cross; and threats to public safety.

During the January 29 meeting in Vernonia twenty-two citizens signed up to ask formal questions, which were followed by a more informal discussion period.

Concerned citizen Cory Colburn makes a point during the question and answer portion of the meeting.

Concerned citizen Cory Colburn makes a point during the question and answer portion of the meeting.

Members of the audience asked numerous questions concerning the safety of the pipeline and were repeatedly told that pipeline safety does not fall under the purview of any of the agencies on the panel, but is instead the responsibility of the US Department of Transportation.  Several citizens mentioned recent documented pipeline accidents and concerns about how a potential explosion could impact local timberland by causing forest fires and affect local emergency response agencies.

In addition to safety issues, citizens raised concerns about the “public interest” of the project and noted that since the project takes natural gas from Canada and exports it to Asia, there is little or no benefit to local economies and communities who take all the risk of being impacted by a potential disaster.  According to the Oregon LNG website, during construction the project would employ an average of 3,000 workers for more than five years and directly employ 150 people once the terminal becomes operational.

Citizens also raised concerns about the impact the project would have on global climate change.

They also questioned the cost of filing permits and pointed out that Oregon LNG only pays $100 to file a permit with the Army Corps, indicating American taxpayers pay for the expense of the Army Corps to evaluate the permit application, accept public comment and hold public meetings.  The DEQ representatives noted that the cost of the DEQ permits are commensurate with the work needed to process them and usually run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

In addition to needing to secure permits from the above mentioned regulatory agencies, Oregon LNG currently faces several hurdles that could kill the project.

On December 17, 2014, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners decision to deny the pipeline due to land use rules.

Oregon LNG is also facing current litigation which indicates they don’t have access to the land where they intend to construct the export terminal.  Oregon LNG subleased the land from the Port of Astoria, but a pre-existing easement from 1957 given to the Army Corps of Engineers to dump dredge spoils on the site may supersede the land lease. Oregon LNG has filed suit against the US government to gain access to the land.

Members of the panel representing the Army Corps declined to comment on the current litigation during the meeting in Vernonia.

Despite those potential roadblocks, Oregon LNG has continued to pursue the permit process.

DEQ is responsible for reviewing a proposed project permit to ensure that the Oregon LNG project meets state water quality standards, does not degrade water quality, and maintains waterways for recreational use and as aquatic habitat.  DEQ has the ability to grant or deny 401 water quality certification.

DEQ is currently accepting public comments on the project until February 16, 2015.  If DEQ proposes to grant the permit it will be placed on public notice and public hearings will be held to accept formal comments.  When asked, Christensen and Purcell said a public hearing on the pipeline portion of the project would be held in Vernonia.

The Army Corps of Engineers is also responsible for the review of the Clean Water Act Section 404 Permit and can deny the permit if they determine that the project is not in the public interest.

The project is also subject to  review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which will issue a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project.  Federal agencies cooperating in the preparation of the EIS include the US Department of Energy, US Department of Transportation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Coast Guard, US Army Corps of Engineers, and US Environmental Protection Agency.

Once the draft EIS has been issued there will be a forty-five day comment period as well as public comment meetings before a final EIS is issued.