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Originally published Thursday, December 26, 2013 at 7:39 PM

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Form letters one way environmental groups mobilize backers

The proposed oil terminal in Vancouver, Wash., has drawn an avalanche of comments from across the country — many of them form letters copied from environmental groups like the Sierra Club.


The Columbian

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As state officials begin to review more than 31,000 comments on a proposed oil terminal in Vancouver, Wash., the task may not be as daunting as it sounds.

That’s because thousands of those comments are identical — form letters copied word for word, with only the name on the bottom changed. Of the comments released by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council so far, the vast majority are from outside Vancouver. An avalanche of names came from all over the country, most opposed.

The tactic isn’t new. Form letters and online petitions are one way well-organized environmental groups have mobilized their supporters in huge numbers against fossil-fuel projects in the Northwest and elsewhere. A planned coal-export facility in Longview generated more than 200,000 comments earlier this year.

A major player in both efforts was the Sierra Club, a national advocacy group with offices in Portland. Field organizer Laura Stevens said about 5,400 people from Washington and Oregon used the organization’s petition to submit their comments on the oil terminal. But she dismissed the notion that duplicated comments take anything away from their value.

“These are people that agree. That’s what matters,” Stevens said. “If it’s a little bit easier for someone to participate in that process, I think that’s a good thing.”

The oil terminal, proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, if built, could handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day at the Port of Vancouver. The oil-by-rail project is in the beginning stages of a lengthy review. Gov. Jay Inslee will ultimately decide its fate. But opponents aren’t waiting to push back.

The Sierra Club and Friends of the Columbia Gorge were among those who used emails and petitions to funnel thousands of comments to the council. Many also used a form letter offered online by Friends of the Earth, which has taken up environmental causes across the U.S.

The letters raised similar concerns: that the Tesoro-Savage plan would bring with it the risk of a disastrous oil spill, that communities along rail lines would suffer, that the project would exacerbate the effects of global climate change.

One of the commonly used letters ends this way: “After carefully considering the safety, environmental, and climate risks associated with the proposed oil terminal, I respectfully ask you to recommend the rejection of Tesoro-Savage’s application.”

The oil terminal generated more comments than the council has seen on a single project in at least the past 20 to 30 years, possibly ever, said Stephen Posner, interim manager of the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. They came during the “scoping” period, during which the agency decides what is to be included in an environmental review.

Receiving duplicate comments doesn’t mean they’ll simply be glossed over, Posner said. Each submission will be cataloged, organized and numbered. A scoping report will identify each topic raised, and the number of comments that addressed it, he said.

“Every comment letter, even if it says the same thing, as long as it’s from a different person, is treated as a separate comment,” Posner said.

When the Tesoro-Savage proposal was first publicly announced in April, opponents were ready. Continuing debate over coal exports in the region had already energized a broad network of environmental activists and volunteers. Many of the same people lent their voices to the emerging oil controversy.

On coal, both supporters and opponents proved to be well-organized. Dueling groups brought throngs of people to packed public meetings across the state amid high-powered campaigns. Comments numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

As the review of the Vancouver oil terminal advances in 2014, many expect the controversy to reverberate well beyond Clark County.

“I think that the national reach of these issues has increased because of the speed of communications,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “Now it’s able to get national attention.”



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