Gorge Commission receives a mixed message on funding

Budget to stay mostly flat; increases had been earmarked for oil, coal train issue

A year after its executive director warned the agency was on the “verge of collapse” due to a lack of funding, the Columbia River Gorge Commission will not be receiving the financial boost it had hoped for.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee released his budget report Thursday, showing that the Gorge Commission’s request for significant funding increases had essentially been denied, and that its budget would only increase by $64,000 according to Gorge Commission Executive Director Darren Nichols.

The news was especially unwelcome as it followed on the heels of what would have been a substantial cash infusion from the state of Oregon. Nichols reported that Governor John Kitzhaber’s budget released earlier this month called for an 89-percent increase in funding for the commission — taking what was Oregon’s $891,000 share of the bi-state agency’s budget and bumping it up to over $1.6 million. Nichols noted it was “a step in the right direction,” but was “still only half of what we need.”

However, because the Gorge Commission is required to be funded equally by the two states, the Gorge Commission has to leave that extra Oregon money on the table.

Nichols was disappointed by Gov. Inslee’s budget, calling it an example of a “long term pattern of orchestrated disinvestment in the Gorge Commission” and other regional entities.

The agency, which was formed by the 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act and is tasked with both protecting Gorge resources and promoting economic development within the region, has suffered declining budgets since the outset of the late-2000s economic recession.

The commission made the large funding request after some contentious budget meetings held this past summer. A portion of the funding was earmarked to restore staffing cuts that had been made to the agency, which would include the hiring of planners needed to process the backlog of scenic area land use permits.

Nichols said some the extra money would also have been allocated to hiring staffers to deal with an issue that is of equal if not greater concern to the commission: the increase of fossil fuel transport by rail through the Gorge. However, Nichols said there was “no way” the commission could afford to hire even a single staffer with Washington’s funding.

The announcement comes just over a week after representatives of Oregon and Washington state agencies met in Hood River to hold a public meeting to discuss fossil fuel transport in the Gorge.

Just before it made its budget request in August, the Gorge Commission passed a strongly-worded resolution calling on the governors of both states to issue a moratorium on all new fossil fuel transport in the Gorge until the states completed a joint risk assessment on the issue. Coal and oil transport has gained more exposure in recent years due to plans to construct several coal and oil terminals throughout the Pacific Northwest that would be used to export the commodities to primarily Asian markets.

Oil-by-rail transport has in particular caught the attention of the Gorge Commission as of late due to some high-profile explosions and spills that have occurred in North America in the past two years, as well as North Dakota’s Bakken crude oil boom.

Oil has also caught the attention of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission as well as the Washington Department of Ecology, representatives of which were both present at the public meeting held last week.

According to a presentation given by these departments during the meeting, oil-by-rail transport is a relatively recent development in Washington, which didn’t see an oil train roll through the state until 2012. The Columbia River Gorge has been the conduit through which much of that oil flows, with a slide from the presentation noting that as of June, Klickitat County boasts the highest number of crude-by-rail unit trains — which carry only one type of cargo, as opposed to “manifest” trains — in the state at 19 trains per week, with the expectation that the number will grow.

Tribal agencies also discussed the impact of coal and oil on water quality in the Gorge and how that negatively impacts salmon health. Nichols said the point was made that even if oil and coal were spilled father away from the Gorge in Puget Sound or the Pacific Ocean, it would still present a risk to salmon and impact their ability to return to the Columbia River.

Nichols said in the discussions, the moratorium the Gorge Commission had requested did not come up, although he noted that “the fact that the (state agency) representatives were in the room was a response to that resolution.” He added that he did not know whether the governors had the power to enact such a moratorium, noting that the request “tipped into interstate commerce and federal preemption.”

Still, Nichols said the meeting was productive in that the agencies discussed their limits in regulatory powers, while also offering ways to either prevent oil train accidents or safeguard the Gorge both ecologically and economically if they do occur. Some of the recommendations included:

  • Expand and increase the barrel tax to rail and pipelines to help stabilize funding for the state’s oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response programs
  • Require oil shippers to demonstrate they have adequate insurance coverage
  • Require rail operators to submit advanced notice of time, location, and volume of oil transfers
  • Allowing the UTC to inspect private rail crossings

Washington DOE is also in the process of preparing a final report for Gov. Inslee on oil shipment throughout the state, which is to be completed by March. Nichols also mentioned that Oregon Department of Transportation Rail Division Administrator Hal Gard informed the commission his agency has put together an advisory committee to look at rail safety and emergency response issues, with the primary focus on oil transportation.

Nichols said Washington lawmakers will likely be drafting some sort of legislation governing fossil fuel transport in preparation for the upcoming legislative session in January. What the extent of that legislation will be remains to be seen. Whatever legislation is passed, Nichols believed it was unlikely that work on the issue would be concluded anytime soon.

“This is a very large conversation with a lot of moving parts,” he said. “This is not going to be something any one of us can solve alone and it’s not something that can be addressed overnight.”

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