Citing new information, groups ask Whatcom County to reverse its prior decision not to study regional transportation risks of crude by rail to local refineries
BELLINGHAM, WA –In a letter submitted Wednesday, January 22, three local and one national organization asked Whatcom County officials to withdraw prior administrative determinations that allowed infrastructure projects to expand shipments of highly volatile Bakken crude by rail to Cherry Point refineries without full environmental review.
Together, BP and Phillips 66 plan to receive nearly 10 crude trains per week, each with over 100 tanker cars carrying over 10,000 tons of crude, without benefit of a full environmental study of potential impacts to the county or the state. Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act provides that regulatory agencies may withdraw a threshold determination of nonsignificance based on new information, or due to lack of material disclosure.
The four organizations — Protect Whatcom, Friends of the Earth, Safeguard the South Fork, and the League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County — have actively engaged in public education about the impacts of fossil fuel proposals in the region. In particular, they have focused on new and expanded coal export terminals proposed in Washington and British Columbia. The groups’ concerns with the CBR proposals are due to information — some of which was available but not widely known at the time of the permit applications — that has brought the public’s attention to the issue, including:
- Bakken crude is highly volatile, even relative to other forms of crude, because of fracking techniques;
- Pre-2011 DOT-111 tanker cars are easily punctured, increasing risk of explosions and fires after derailment;
- In fact, in the past six months, there have been four major incidents involving derailments of tanker cars containing Bakken crude;
- Oil companies are pressuring the federal government to lift the export ban on U.S. crude which could significantly increase CBR shipments if refineries act as crude export terminals; and
- With nearly 20 fossil fuel transportation proposals in the region, all proposals, if approved, equal more volume of freight than is currently on Washington’s rails.
“The crude proposals caught us completely by surprise,” said Terry Wechsler of Protect Whatcom. “When it was reported the local refineries planned to receive Bakken crude, we assumed there would be a cumulative rail impact study, at the least, given input the county received from local organizations in key stakeholder interviews during pre-scoping for the Gateway Pacific Terminal Environmental Impact Statement, and the thousands of similar comments received from the public during scoping.”
Whatcom County Planning and Development Services granted Mitigated Determinations of Nonsignificance on both refineries’ applications. These determinations primarily addressed the filling of wetlands in order to construct the rail facilities. No agency has analyzed the risk or impacts of transporting CBR by land or sea to the west coast terminals. BP received its MDNS in October 2012 in order to receive one train per day; the county issued Phillips 66’s MDNS in April 2013, clearing the way for that refinery to receive one train every other day.
Incidents such as the Lac-Megantic, Quebec, disaster which killed 47 people and burned down half the structures in the town’s downtown area have drawn the public’s attention to the extreme risk posed to this region’s communities by moving Bakken crude by rail. That risk may be unnecessary, Wechsler said, because BP and Conoco Phillips/Phillips 66 — Washington’s largest refiners — are the two largest owners of Alaska drilling rights, and both have announced plans to increase production in Alaska with repeal of the so-called “Palin tax” on crude production in that state.i
“It is incomprehensible that Whatcom County communities could be put at risk by these ‘bombs on wheels’ when it isn’t necessary to ensure adequate refining capacity to meet our regional needs,” said Nicole Brown, a co-founder of Safeguard the South Fork. “There must be a study that considers not only where trains will travel, but also seriously assesses infrastructure limitations of routes not currently preferred. In Whatcom County, the eastern rail line, or ‘farmland’ route, transects our most valuable agricultural communities and natural resources.”
The news that the National Transportation Safety Board recommended on Thursdayii that the Federal Railroad Administration consider rerouting trains to “less populated” areas if “safety and security” were properly balancedwas particularly alarming to Brown. “The environmental justice implications of diverting hazardous activity and known risks to rural communities where rail lines are a stone’s throw from schools such as Acme Elementary and Mt. Baker High School are simply staggering,” she said.
“Given the public safety risks posed to Whatcom County from trains carrying explosive cargo to BP and Philips 66, oil spills from increased crude exports and the cumulative congestion of the rails, it is imperative that the county require a full environmental impact analysis to determine if or how these impacts can be mitigated,” said Fred Felleman, Northwest Consultant for Friends of the Earth’s Oceans and Vessels program.
Felleman also noted over one million barrels of crude oil were exported from Washington in 2013, which included Alberta tar sands crude exported through the BP refinery pier. “We need more than the applicants’ promises to assure the increased risks posed by CBR on land will not also result in increased vessel traffic and the associated risk of oil spills in the marine environment. According to the recently completed Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment by the George Washington University, while tanker traffic at Phillips 66 has been relatively steady, tankers bound to BP have increased by 10 per year since the construction of their new refinery dock.”
Noting that the national League of Women Voters strongly supports public participation in environmental issues, Annette Holcomb, co-president of the local chapter said “the League believes that public understanding and cooperation are essential to the responsible and responsive management of our nation’s natural resources, and the public has a right to know about pollution levels, dangers to health and the environment.”
The joint group request acknowledges the limited expertise and jurisdiction available at the county level to address a matter of state-wide and national significance; and calls on County planners to coordinate with the appropriate state and federal agencies — particularly the Washington Department of Ecology and the Federal Railroad Administration — to act as co-leads in a full study of all direct and indirect impacts posed by the crude proposals.
Three of the organizations — Protect Whatcom, Friends of the Earth, and Safeguard the South Fork — will submit a similar request to Skagit County regarding an MDNS granted to the Tesoro Anacortes refinery. Shell Anacortes recently submitted an application to build rail infrastructure to receive Bakken crude, and comments may be submitted by February 14, 2014.
i Lynn Doan, “BP to Conoco Seek Alaskan Oil Comeback as Palin Tax Dies: Energy,” Bloomberg, Jan. 7, 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-08/bp-to-conoco-seek-alaskan-oil-comeback-as-palin-tax-dies-energy.html.