Tag Archives: Grays Harbor County

Environmentalists play ‘Whac-A-Mole’ to stall crude-by-rail projects

Repost from Environment & Energy Publishing (EEnews.net)

Environmentalists play ‘Whac-A-Mole’ to stall crude-by-rail projects

By Ellen M. Gilmer and Blake Sobczak, March 20, 2015
(Second of two stories. Read the first one here.) [Subscription required]

When an oil company’s expansion plans for Pacific Northwest crude by rail suffered a major setback last month, environmentalists spread the news just as quickly as they could Google “Skagit County Hearing Examiner.”

The little-known local office about an hour north of Seattle holds the keys to land use in the area, and environmental attorneys saw it as the best shot to stall a rail extension considered critical for the delivery of crude oil to a nearby Shell Oil Co. refinery, but potentially disastrous for nearby estuaries and communities.

The effort was successful: After environmental groups appealed a county-level permit for the rail project, Skagit County Hearing Examiner Wick Dufford sent the proposal back to the drawing board, ordering local officials to conduct an in-depth environmental impact statement to consider the broad effects of increased crude-by-rail throughout the county.

“The environmental review done in this case assumes that the whole big ball of federal, state and local regulations will somehow make the trains safe. And that if an accident happens, the response efforts described on paper will result in effective clean up, so that no significant adverse effects are experienced,” Dufford wrote. “There is no proven basis for such conclusions.”

The decision was an incremental but significant victory for environmental groups, sending a signal to industry that its increasing reliance on railed-in crude could face formidable hurdles.

Skagit County is just one piece of a larger plan to expand crude-by-rail across the country to better connect refineries and ports with prolific oil plays like North Dakota’s Bakken Shale. The use of rail to deliver crude oil has skyrocketed in recent years, rising from 9,500 tank cars of crude in 2008 to nearly 500,000 carloads in 2014, according to industry data. Projects in Washington and other refinery hubs aim to expand facilities and extend rail spurs to handle even more crude deliveries.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company is “confident that we can satisfy any remaining issues associated with the project” to add rail capacity to its Puget Sound Refinery in Skagit County.

“This project is critical to the refinery, the hundreds of employees and contractors who depend on Shell, and the regional economy,” he said. “We do not feel it should be held to a different standard than the crude-by-rail projects of the neighboring refineries that have been approved.”

Smith added that “we all share the top priority of safety.”

But the new reality of crude-by-rail traffic has environmentalists on edge. Oil train derailments in Illinois, West Virginia, North Dakota and other places have led to fires, spills and, in one case, lost lives. A 2013 crude-by-rail explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, prompting regulators in the United States and Canada to review the inherently piecemeal rules governing crude-by-rail transportation.

The federal government has authority over certain details, such as standards for tank cars used to haul crude. But most expansion plans and related environmental concerns are left to local agencies situated along oil routes. The result is a hodgepodge of permitting decisions by local authorities following varying state laws, while a team of environmental lawyers challenges expansion projects one by one.

“It’s a little bit like Whac-A-Mole because there isn’t a big permitting scheme,” said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles, who represented six environmental groups in the Skagit County appeal. “It makes it difficult and makes it frustrating for the public.”

State laws in play

So far, the Whac-A-Mole approach is working well for environmentalists.

After three oil refineries in Washington went unopposed in building facilities to receive rail shipments of crude oil, Boyles said environmentalists and community advocates began tracking local land-use agencies more closely.

Earthjustice and the Quinault Indian Nation successfully challenged two proposed crude projects in Grays Harbor County, southwest of Seattle, leading a review board to vacate permits and require additional environmental and public health studies. A third Grays Harbor project is also preparing a comprehensive environmental review.

The next project on environmentalists’ radar is in Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore., where Savage Cos. and Tesoro Refining and Marketing Co. have proposed building a new terminal to transfer railed-in crude oil to marine tankers bound for West Coast refineries. The Sierra Club, ForestEthics and several other groups earlier this month moved to intervene in the state agency review process for the project, citing major threats to the Columbia River and public health.

The key to all of these challenges is Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Similar to the National Environmental Policy Act, SEPA requires government agencies to conduct a broad environmental impact statement for any major actions that may significantly affect the environment.

For projects in Skagit County, Grays Harbor and now Vancouver, state and local officials considering challenges look to SEPA to determine how rigorous environmental review must be, based on whether projects are expected to have major impacts. To Dufford, the Skagit examiner, the answer is plain.

“Unquestionably, the potential magnitude and duration of environmental and human harm from oil train operations in Northwest Washington could be very great,” he wrote.

Down the coast in California, environmentalists have an even stronger tool: the California Environmental Quality Act. Considered the gold standard in state-level environmental protection laws, CEQA has already proved useful in halting a crude-by-rail expansion project in Sacramento.

In Kern County, a team of environmental attorneys is also relying on CEQA to appeal construction permits for the Bakersfield Crude Terminal, a project that would ultimately receive 200 tank cars of crude oil per day. The local air quality board labeled the construction permits as “ministerial,” bypassing CEQA review, which is required only for projects considered discretionary. A hearing is set for next month in Kern County Superior Court.

Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth, who is representing environmental groups in the Bakersfield case, said the state environmental law has been powerful in slowing down the rapid rise of crude-by-rail operations.

“In California, we have CEQA, which is a strong tool,” she said. “You can’t hide from the law. You can’t site your project out in some town that you think won’t oppose you.”

Unified strategy?

Still, the one-at-a-time approach to opposing crude-by-rail growth is undoubtedly slow-going, and progress comes bit by bit.

Boyles noted that Earthjustice attorneys from Washington to New York frequently strategize to “unify” the issues and make broader advances. On tank cars, for example, environmental groups have come together to press the Department of Transportation to bolster safety rules.

“That at least is some place where you could get improvements that could affect every one of these proposals,” she said.

But for expansion projects, the effort must still be localized.

“You have this giant sudden growth of these sort of projects, and that’s the best we can do at this point to review each of them and comment,” said Forsyth, the California lawyer, who said the end goal is to empower local agencies to control whether proposals move forward and to mitigate the impacts when they do.

Though labor-intense, advocates say the approach has paid dividends. Projects that would have otherwise flown under the radar are now under rigorous review, and industry players no longer have the option of expanding facilities quietly and without public comment.

“If you hadn’t had these citizens challenging these projects,” Boyles said, “they’d be built already; they’d be operating already.”

The delays have set back refiners seeking to use rail to tap price-advantaged domestic crude — particularly in California.

“The West Coast is a very challenging environment,” noted Lane Riggs, executive vice president of refining operations at Valero Energy Corp., which has faced staunch environmentalist opposition at a proposed oil-by-rail terminal in Benicia.

Riggs said in a January conference call that “we’re still pretty optimistic we’ll get the permit” for the 70,000-barrels-per-day unloading terminal at its refinery there, although he added that “timing at this point is a little bit difficult.”

Facing pressure from concerned locals and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Benicia officials last month opted to require updates to the rail project’s draft environmental impact review, further delaying a project that was originally scheduled to come online in 2013.

A Phillips 66 crude-by-rail proposal in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., has encountered similar pushback. If approved, the project would add five 80-car oil trains per week to the region’s track network. The potential for more crude-by-rail shipments has drawn opposition from several local city councils and regional politicians, despite Phillips 66’s pledge to use only newer-model tank cars (EnergyWire, Jan. 27).

Some town leaders have also separately taken action against railroads bringing oil traffic through their neighborhoods, although federally pre-emptive laws leave cities vulnerable to legal challenges (EnergyWire, March 19).

‘Business as usual’

Local, often environmentalist-driven opposition is seen as “business as usual” within the refining industry, according to Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.

“This is just another extension of the environmental playbook to try to obfuscate and delay,” said Drevna, whose trade group represents the largest U.S. refiners. “We’ve been dealing with that for years, and we’re going to continue to be dealing with it.”

While Drevna said he doesn’t see lawsuits “holding up any of the plans” for refiners to improve access to North American oil production, environmentalists chalk up each slowdown to a victory.

In New York, a plan to expand a key crude-by-rail conduit to East Coast refiners has been held in limbo for over a year at the Port of Albany, owing to an environmentalist lawsuit and closer public scrutiny.

The proposal by fuel logistics firm Global Partners LP would have added a boiler room to an existing facility to process heavier crude from Canada. But advocacy groups including Riverkeeper have challenged the company’s operating air permit, calling for more review by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (EnergyWire, Jan. 13, 2014).

“All of the actions we’ve taken with Earthjustice and others have really ground to a halt DEC’s repeated approvals of these minor modifications,” said Kate Hudson, watershed program director for Riverkeeper. “We have not seen tar sands. … The river has been spared that threat for a year-plus, at this point.

“We certainly have no regrets,” she said.

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    Seattle: More than 750 turn out for meeting on oil-train study

    Repost from The Seattle Times

    More than 750 people turn out for meeting on oil-train study

    Hundreds of people concerned about the increasing number of oil trains traversing the state came to a Thursday evening meeting in Olympia to comment on the preliminary findings of a state study on oil-train safety and spill response.
    By Hal Bernton, October 30, 2014

    State officials are proposing more funding and more regulatory authority to step up oversight of the surging numbers of oil trains carrying crude through Washington, and to better prepare for any possible spills.

    The proposals are included in the preliminary findings of a state Department of Ecology study, which was reviewed at a Thursday evening meeting that drew more than 750 people, the vast majority of whom are opposed to increased oil train traffic in the state.

    The report — in an interim form — is scheduled to be delivered to Gov. Jay Inslee in December. The draft findings already are spurring state agencies to prepare legislation, according to Lisa Copeland, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman.

    The report includes a dozen measures that could be taken up by the Legislature to try to improve safety and spill response. They include modifying the railroad regulatory-fee structure so that more rail inspectors are hired, providing new state authority to monitor the safety of rail crossings on private roads and launching a new state grant program to finance firefighting equipment.

    The report is being prepared by a team of consultants along with the state Ecology Department, Utilities and Transportation Commission and other state agencies. It examines the public health, safety and environmental risks posed by the movement of crude oil by rail as well as by vessel through Washington waters.

    The oil trains moving through Washington reflect a fundamental shift in sourcing of Pacific Northwest oil as Alaska North Slope crude production declines and the Bakken fields of North Dakota boom.

    In 2011, almost no oil trains traversed Washington.

    Now, state officials say, some 19 trains carry crude across the state each week. Over a year’s time, those trains move some 2.87 billion gallons of oil. After they unload their crude, some of the Bakken oil is transported by tug and barge to Puget Sound-area refineries

    In the aftermath of a July 6, 2013, oil-train derailment and explosion in Canada that killed 47 people, crude trains have raised public concern and prompted state officials in Washington and elsewhere to increase scrutiny of such trains.

    There were eight other “notable crude oil derailments” in North America in 2013 and 2014, and the report says that Bakken crude “may present significant risks with respect to public safety due to its higher volatility and flammability.”

    By 2020, in Washington, the crude-oil traffic through the state could more than triple to 59 trains a week if expansion plans for terminals are actually completed,

    “We felt it was important to lay out what is in the realm of the possible, “ said Scott Ferguson, a Department of Ecology official who has assisted with the report.

    The increasing numbers of oil trains have caused plenty of unease to roil through the state. Some 200 people signed up to speak Thursday evening, and Department of Ecology officials listened to hours of passionate testimony from people upset about tanker cars filled with crude.

    Those who testified spoke about the potential for spills that could foul tribal fisheries in the Columbia River, drinking water aquifers for Olympia and sensitive coastal waters near Bellingham.

    They talked about the potential for exploding tanker cars that would kill people living in a “blast zone” along the rail lines.

    Many were veterans of the movement to try to block development of coal terminals in Washington state, wearing red shirts that declared “Power Past Coal.” They frequently waved signs that declared oil and coal are bad for Washington.

    “Our state is at a crossroads with proposed increases in crude oil and coal transportation, testified Kathryn Chudy, a therapist who lives in Vancouver, Wash. “Adding more crude oil and coal trains to this risk jeopardizes their safety, and can in no way be justified.”

    Frank Gordon, a Grays Harbor County Commissioner, fears what an oil spill would do to the salmon runs in his area and said he opposes a proposal to develop a new oil terminal at Hoquiam.

    “We don’t need oil trains coming to Grays Harbor. It’s just not worthwhile,” Gordon said.

    Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, in an interview before the hearing, said that BNSF has a strong safety record in transporting crude oil by rail.

    He said that BNSF has assisted with firefighter training and taken other steps to improve safety. To help reduce the risks of a derailments, for example, the crude oil trains move at speeds of less than 20 miles an hour through Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.

    “We have invested nearly $500 million in the past three years in track upgrades in Washington,” Melonas said

    BNSF also is focusing on crew compliance with railway rules, as well as inspections to improve safety as trains move along the rails.

    “As a common carrier we are obligated to move all types of freight,” Melonas said. “We don’t control what we haul, but we control how we haul it.”

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      Washington State: three derailments in three weeks

      Repost from Indian Country Today Media Network

      Grain Car Derailment Could Have Been Oil: Quinault Raise Alarm Again

      ICTMN Staff  |  5/19/14

      KXRO:  If this grain were oil…. The third train-car derailment in as many weeks has Pacific Northwest tribes that oppose oil-rail transport on edge.

      It has happened again, this time not with oil but with grain.

      However, the Quinault Nation pointed out on May 16, the derailment of a grain train in Grays Harbor County is all the affirmation needed to show that transporting something more hazardous, namely oil, in this manner has too much chance of ending badly.

      “Another train derailment in Grays Harbor County? Three in three weeks? Rails ripped up, Cars tipped over. Cargo spilled out,” said Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp in a statement. “That cargo may have been grain this morning, but it might just as well have been oil, and that would have been disastrous.”

      Sharp was alluding to a May 15 incident in which seven cars carrying grain tipped over when 11 cars on the train they were part of derailed. It was the third such occurrence in as many weeks on the network of tracks operated by Puget Sound & Pacific Railway in the Grays Harbor area, the Quinault statement said. This came right on the heels of two earlier derailments—one on April 29, when a grain car tipped over in Aberdeen, and another on May 9 in east Aberdeen, when some cars came off their tracks, the Quinault said.

      The cargo was different, but the propensity of train cars to derail no matter what they were carrying says that transporting oil via this method is not safe, the Quinault said. Around the country and in Canada, derailments of trains bearing crude oil, much of it from oil sands and deemed especially flammable, have resulted in destruction and even death.

      However, Puget Sound & Pacific Railway, a division of Genessee & Wyoming, said it was investigating the cause of the derailment.

      “This series of minor derailments is a highly unusual, unacceptable occurrence and subject to a rigorous investigation,” company spokesperson Michael Williams, Genesee & Wyoming, told radio station KXRO on May 16. “The first two derailments were caused by localized failure of railroad ties that were saturated with moisture from recent heavy rains. Other locations experiencing this issue have been identified and are being corrected prior to receiving another train. The cause of yesterday’s derailment is still being determined.”

      Several tribes in the Northwest are opposing railroad terminals in or near their territory that would handle oil and coal. Oil traffic in particular has troubled the Quinault.

      “Now, one-two-three, it’s as easy as that. Any argument in favor of bringing Big Oil into our region has been knocked out cold,” said Sharp in the statement. “As we have consistently stated, our people and our treaty-protected natural resources are jeopardized by these oil shipments. This danger is real. We have invested millions of dollars to protect and restore the ecological integrity of our region, and we will not allow Big Oil to destroy it.”

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