Washington Supreme Court Delivers Victory for Open Government


Ruling calls into question future of proposal for nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal

June 8, 2017 (Olympia, WA) – The Washington Supreme Court today rejected the Port of Vancouver USA’s interpretation of the Open Public Meetings Act. Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center alleged that the Port violated the Open Public Meetings Act by holding closed-door meetings about the nation’s largest oil-by-rail proposal.

“Today’s decision is a victory for people who believe in open, accountable government,” stated Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director for Columbia Riverkeeper. “The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling comes as scandal consumes Washington D.C. and affirms the responsibility of our state and local elected officials to answer to the people — not Big Oil in backroom deals.”

In 2013, Tesoro-Savage (Tesoro) began working with the Port of Vancouver to secure public land for a future oil-by-rail terminal. Before the public learned about the oil-by-rail proposal, the Port commissioners met in secret with each other — and with representatives of Tesoro — to discuss the proposal and a lease agreement. The Port leased land to Tesoro, paving the way for the highly controversial terminal. Public interest groups alleged that those secret meetings violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. In today’s ruling, the Washington Supreme Court disagreed with the Port’s over-broad interpretation of the law.

The court’s decision states: “[T]he Port’s interpretation [of the Open Public Meetings Act] would  achieve precisely what the legislature sought to prevent: ‘real estate business’ being discussed ‘in secret.’” Opinion at p.22. The court explained that the “Tesoro-Savage lease involved topics that were clearly matters of substantial public concern, including environmental risks, public safety hazards, and local economic impacts.” Id. at 19. The Port’s interpretation of the law “would invade the people’s right to decide for themselves ‘what is good for [them] to know and what is not good for them to know.’” Id.

Vancouver residents, Columbia River tribes, business and faith leaders, health and safety professionals, the City of Vancouver, and Washington’s Attorney General have spoken out against the oil-by-rail terminal. The fate of this highly controversial project rests with the Washington Energy Facility Siting Evaluation Council and Governor Inslee.

“The proposed Tesoro crude-by-rail terminal would facilitate additional destructive fracking for oil and would pose a threat to public safety and the environment, including endangered salmon habitat. The court’s opinion today recognizes that these important decisions about how to use Washington's public lands must be made openly and in the public eye,” said Sierra Club staff attorney Katie Schaefer.

The future of Tesoro’s project remains uncertain. Now, the trial court must apply the Supreme Court’s opinion and decide whether the Port’s meetings with oil company representatives violated state law. The public interest groups have asked the trial court to void Tesoro’s lease and declare that the Port repeatedly violated the Open Public Meetings Act. “While the Supreme Court didn’t explicitly rule on whether the Port’s meetings violated the law, it handed down an opinion that favors robust public vetting over backroom deals,” states VandenHeuvel.

Columbia Riverkeeper, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, and Sierra Club are represented in this case by Brian Knutsen of Kampmeier and Knutsen, Knoll Lowney of Smith and Lowney, and Miles Johnson of Columbia Riverkeeper.

Read the opinion here.

About Columbia Riverkeeper
Columbia Riverkeeper’s mission is to protect and restore the water quality of the Columbia River and all life connected to it, from the headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. Representing over 12,000 members and supporters, Columbia Riverkeeper works to restore a Columbia River where people can safely eat the fish they catch and where children can swim without fear of toxic exposure. Columbia Riverkeeper is a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, the world’s fastest-growing environmental movement, uniting more than 300 Waterkeeper organizations worldwide. For more information, go to columbiariverkeeper.org.

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