The final chapter has closed in the multi-year lawsuit by NEDC, Columbia Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club against the Port of Vancouver, Washington, over a proposal to build what would have been the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil terminal there. In 2013, the Port approved a lease with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build and operate the terminal, which would have received up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily by train. Up to 2 million barrels of crude would have been stored in above-ground tanks before being loaded onto ships for export to refineries or foreign markets.
In approving the lease, the Port’s Board of Commissioners held numerous so-called “executive sessions” in which it discussed the proposed oil terminal and its potential impacts on the community and the environment, as well as lease terms, behind closed doors. Some of these meetings took place before the project was even announced to the public. NEDC, along with Columbia Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, sued the Port on the grounds that the secret meetings were illegal and violated Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act. The case went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court, which issued an opinion in June 2017 rejecting the Port’s interpretation of the law. The Supreme Court then remanded the case back to the trial court to decide whether the Port’s private meetings were illegal.
The dominoes started falling from there. In late January of this year, Washington governor Jay Inslee denied state siting approval, and the following month the Port voted to terminate the lease, effectively killing the project. In March, the Port entered into a settlement agreement with NEDC, Columbia Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club, in which the Port admitted that its closed-door meetings on the lease had violated the Open Public Meetings Act. The Port also paid for the attorneys’ fees that plaintiffs had incurred during the multi-year case.
The end result was a big win for NEDC, its co-plaintiffs, and the interested public. The lawsuit was instrumental in mobilizing opposition to the project, and produced an important Washington Supreme Court decision that gives guidance to government bodies on what decision-makers may not discuss behind closed doors. As a result, the public will be better informed in the future about the full impacts of projects under consideration by governmental agencies, and will be able to more fully participate in the public process of deciding whether or not they should be approved. The public’s right to transparency and open government are especially critical in circumstances like these, when high-stakes projects with profound regional environmental impacts are at issue.
NEDC thanks its outside counsel, Brian Knutsen at Kampmeier & Knutsen, PLLC and Knoll Lowney at Smith and Lowney PLLC, and Miles Johnson, staff attorney at Columbia Riverkeeper, for their dedication and hard work on this case