Q&A With Emilia Ponti

Conservation Director Dan Serres spoke with Emilia Ponti, a resident of Columbia County who founded Mothers for a Safe Columbia County to help draw attention to the dangers oil trains could bring to her community.

Q&A With Emilia Ponti, Founder, Mothers for a Safe Columbia County

By: Dan Serres, Conservation Director

Serres: Let’s cut to the chase. Why do you think DEQ's proposed air pollution permit is such a big mistake? 

Emilia Ponti & Family
Emilia Ponti & the Team of Cloud Cap Mushroom Co.

Ponti: Oil trains pose risks wherever they go. They are a mistake because they can blow up, and they can spill as we saw in Mosier in June 2016. I testified in hearings about other oil train terminals, and I'm appalled to see Oregon DEQ pushing forward with a plan to approve more oil trains through our County. The oil trains would follow the aging P&W railroad tracks that hug the edge of the Columbia River, but they would also bisect our towns, effectively cutting them in half. These ‘bomb’ trains would run alongside schools, businesses, residences, and other critical infrastructure. I am particularly concerned that an oil train incident could block emergency responders, interfering with their ability to address a fire, spill, or to aid in the evacuation of one of our schools. 

Serres: What can people do to help?

Ponti: We need help from everyone across the region to weigh-in with DEQ this month and urge them to stop and rethink whether it really makes sense to renew an air pollution permit that will lead to more dangerous oil trains through our towns. There is reason to believe that DEQ will find support for doing the right thing, here. In 2019, in a surprise election, two new Port commissioners unseated incumbents. It was sort of a community-level immune response to the threat of oil trains. The community wants jobs and clean water—not oil trains. 

As community activists, we successfully stopped the Port of Morrow coal terminal and the Port of Vancouver oil terminal project. This is our river. These are our ports. Let’s take this back. These companies do not have a right to come here and jeopardize our lives for their profit. 

And one other thing folks can do to help: check out my family's mushroom CSA - Cloud Cap Mushroom Company! We can always use new, sustainable business in Columbia County.

Serres: Your area schools are close to the tracks?

Ponti: Yes. Every single school in the Scappoose school district is in the blast zone. Schools in Warren and St. Helens are also close to the tracks. DEQ's permit could allow for two loaded oil trains each day, although the Port's lease does not currently allow for this level of train traffic. If Global Partners were to fully realize the levels of oil throughput allowed in DEQ's proposed permit, we could see 120,000 barrels of oil each day passing within a stone's throw of our schools. Each train could carry as much as three million gallons of crude oil. 

Mosier oil train fire, photo by Paloma Ayala
Mosier oil train fire, June 3, 2016 (photo credit: Paloma Ayala).

Lengthy oil trains also severely disrupt the flow of traffic, impacting residents and businesses by closing intersections for 8-10 minutes at a time. With the frequent occurrence of derailments, including one already in this region, the dangers of derailment are not just theoretical. Rail cars are demonstrably unfit for carrying volatile crude oil. The tracks and cars were not designed for safely transporting oil. Also, the storage tanks out at Port Westward are in a liquefaction zone. We know serious seismic events are imminent, and it’s not a risk we can take with one of the most important waterways in North America.

We have a responsibility to this place we love to protect it from oil spills that would devastate our beloved Columbia River, and could even level entire towns. Given these issues, it is an unacceptable risk, and it is our job to stop this from moving forward.

We have a responsibility to this place we love to protect it from oil spills that would devastate our beloved Columbia River, and could even level entire towns. Given these issues, it is an unacceptable risk, and it is our job to stop this from moving forward.

Serres: Mothers for a Safe Columbia County has also expressed concern about the climate impacts of the proposal. Can you tell us a little about this aspect of Global's oil train terminal?

Ponti: The climate impact of a project like this cannot be understated. Once the oil they’re moving is burned, assuming they’re operating at full capacity, it would be equivalent to around 18 million tons of CO2 per year. This is based on a prorated estimate using the analysis for the defeated Tesoro-Savage oil train terminal in Vancouver, WA. 18 million tons is a huge amount, but it’s not counted in Oregon’s emissions totals unless it’s actually burned here, even though we bear a lot of the responsibility for those emissions by allowing the oil through our state. Those calculations also don’t include the carbon emissions created just to get the oil out of the ground or the fact that Global would most likely be transloading Alberta tar sands oil which creates massive environmental destruction in the tar sands area and is maybe the most destructive oil extraction project on Earth. 

On top of that, Global has already failed to stick to its permit limits once, back in 2013 when they dramatically exceeded their permit from DEQ. They have a proven track record in multiple states of breaking the rules by violating their permits and paying fines later, but still making plenty of profit. Frankly, I can’t believe anyone would allow them to operate an oil terminal.

Serres: Can you tell us a little more about your county and its history with Global Partners?

Ponti: Columbia County is just north of Multnomah County along the Columbia River on Hwy 30. We have 56 miles of river frontage and a deep water port near Clatskanie called Port Westward, where Global Partner's’ facility is located. It's still called the "Columbia-Pacific Bio-Refinery" because the facility was built to manufacture ethanol from corn. When ethanol production failed, and bankruptcy followed, Global Partners took control of the facility and began to ship oil through our County. In recent years they have shipped—but not manufactured—ethanol. They have also received permission from our local Port district to ship heavy tar sands oil. Columbia County has a total population of 53,000, and about 70% of our residents work outside the county. We are a reluctant bedroom community. Jobs are sacred here as the paper mill, timber industry, and nuclear power plant that used to employ hundreds here have been gone for decades. 
Politically, we are one of those counties that voted twice for Obama and then went for Trump. It sometimes feels taboo to bring up climate change in public settings. I have been heckled more than a couple times in public meetings for speaking out on this issue, even in pushing back on oil trains for public safety reasons.  The Republican party here recently held a forum arguing that climate change is a hoax. So, we have our work cut out for us. 

Serres: Can you say a bit more about why Global Partners' proposal is such a concern?

Ponti: Global partners is a Fortune 500 oil company from Massachusetts with a history of violating permits, not reporting spills, and evading regulation. They are targeting our job-desperate community. The history of the Global Partners project at Port Westward is sordid. It starts with a huge public investment scandal. The facility began as an ethanol refinery at Port Westward that cost tens of millions of dollars in public investment. The plant made one batch of ethanol in 2009. But production failed, the company went bankrupt, and Global Partners bought it in 2012. DEQ allowed Global to switch the permit from ethanol to crude oil without any serious attempt at public involvement, at all. Then, Global violated their permits by bringing in six times the amount of oil allowed under DEQ's original permit. Global claimed it was unintentional, and they were fined. Ultimately, DEQ just increased the amount of oil Global was allowed to transport. Their current permit—the same one that DEQ proposed to renew this year—allows up to 120,000 barrels per day of oil. 

oil train

In 2018, Global asked the Port of Columbia County to lift restrictions in order to transload heavier tar sands. Even though the mayors of St Helens and Scappoose and school officials from Scappoose requested more information (including a comprehensive rail impact study), the Port voted unanimously to allow the change. So Global is one air permit renewal away from being able to renew and even expand its shipment of oil through our towns—and the trains would also pass through Portland, Vancouver, and the Columbia River Gorge.


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