The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lost about 28,000 public comments about a controversial oil-shipping dock at a Whatcom County refinery after they were marked as “malicious spam” by an email security system.
Last July, the Corps solicited comment on its draft environmental impact statement exploring the possible impacts of operating the north wing of a Y-shaped oil transfer dock at the BP Cherry Point refinery. The long-awaited draft came out after a more than eight-year process that included delays over studies of vessel traffic to the dock.
In response to the draft, environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth created a form letter and asked people on its mailing list to sign and send it to the Corps through a communication program called Salsa.
“We were sympathetic to the fact (the Corps was) going to get more comments than they were used to, so we gave them the courtesy of a heads up,” said Fred Felleman, an environmentalist and key player in the legal proceedings, who is a consultant for Friends of the Earth. “They assured us they had room to receive the comments.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The group knew it had at least 26,914 people submit the form, so it was a surprise when the Corps’ announced in October that more than 2,000 comments had come in during the comment period.
“We wouldn’t have known had they not sent out that press release,” Felleman said.
The comments, which have subsequently been recovered by the Corps, dealt with the study of the crude oil and refined product dock, part of which was built in 1996, and went into operation in 2001.
A group of environmentalists who were concerned about the lack of environmental study completed before the north wing was built sued the Corps in 2000, challenging the legality of the 1996 permit and citing conflicts with a federal law called the Magnuson Amendment that prohibits increased crude oil tanker traffic in Puget Sound east of Port Angeles. The Corps was then required by the court to go back and put together the study.
Comments marked ‘malicious spam’
The form letter from Friends of the Earth starts out by saying, “We are surprised there was no explanation for the 8-year delay (of the draft), but are more concerned by its failure to limit the number of crude oil tankers allowed to call on the terminal.”
Those who signed the letter also stated the permit is in violation of the Magnuson Amendment if more crude oil tankers are allowed to visit the dock than could have before the north wing was built.
After realizing the thousands of letters had not been received, Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director for Friends, emailed Romano Oct. 7 to ask what had happened.
“I am aware that my staff worked with you to ensure that your email could handle the volume of comments that our members would generate and wanted to confirm that your office was in receipt of the comments submitted by Friends of the Earth members and that there wasn’t a technical problem in the transmission,” Keever wrote, according to an email conversation forwarded to The Bellingham Herald.
After getting no reply, Keever again emailed Romano Nov. 5. After still not receiving a response, Keever forwarded the messages to Corps lawyer Siri Nelson on Dec. 17. Nelson replied within 20 minutes and said the Corps would check and get back to the group.
On Tuesday, Jan. 20, Romano emailed Keever, letting her know the IT department had retrieved about 28,000 related emails, which had apparently been quarantined. The amount of comments referenced by the Corps and Friends of the Earth varied from about 27,000 to 28,000.
“Due to the extremely large volume and type of the emails, the Corps email system automatically identified these emails as ‘malicious spam’ and consequently (they) were removed from the system,” Romano wrote. “Needless to say, it was a time consuming process to locate and retrieve these emails. Our IT staff informed me that future retrieval of massive volumes of emails identified as ‘malicious spam’ may not be possible.”
The email goes on to suggest the group submit comments in petition format in the future to make sure they’re received in a timely manner.
“I would’ve hoped that an agency in the business of receiving public comment and was given the courtesy of a heads up could have made sure they had the ability to do it,” Felleman said. “We are faced with various agency protocols — sometimes we have to gather all the signatures then send them in as a single PDF. All we need is to be told how to do it.”
Rule rerouted group’s emails
Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said in an interview Thursday, Jan. 22, the email system had done what it was designed to do — stop a denial-of-service attack. Also known as DoS, such attacks are usually attempts to crash or bring down a website or online service by overloading it with traffic, sometimes from the same IP address.
But why did the comments get lost in quarantine if the Corps had been asked in advance if their system could handle that much traffic?
According to the Corps’ IT department, a rule had been set up to specifically reroute emails from salsalabs.net addresses, Graesser wrote in an email, Friday, Jan. 23. Salsa is a communications software frequently used by nonprofit agencies.
“This rule was set up because of a past massive email campaign that threatened the Northwestern Division and Seattle District Commanders’ ability to respond in an emergency situation,” Graesser wrote. “Once we were made aware from Friends of the Earth that comments on the BP Draft EIS were being automatically rerouted, we were able to retrieve them from a file and will make them part of the record.”
Salsa emails dealing with BP are now rerouted to Romano automatically.
Graesser said the Corps didn’t know if it had missed comments from similar campaigns in the past, and that people should consider signing a petition, or having each commenter send an email from their own address.
“If 28,000 individuals sent us emails, that can be handled,” Graesser said. “We had not had this circumstance previously.”
For comparison, when taking comment on past draft environmental impact statements dealing with permitting processes, more than 125,000 comments came in during the Gateway Pacific Terminal scoping period, 125 comments were submitted on the Puget Sound Nearshore Restoration projects, while the Skokomish ecosystem restoration project and the draft supplemental EIS for Grays Harbor dredging had 34 and 31 comments, Graesser wrote in an email.
“There haven’t been many done with the Army Corps as lead agency,” Graesser wrote.
In an earlier interview, Graesser noted that whether the Corps received one comment from the group or thousands of the same comments, it wouldn’t affect the Corps review in the final environmental impact statement.
“If there’s 28,000 of them or five of them, we’ll address the comment as a whole, in general,” Graesser said. “It isn’t a popularity contest.”
Felleman said he was glad the comments had made it into the official record, but this added to a mounting list of transparency issues with the project.
“This whole process has had a level of opaqueness that has raised my suspicions,” Felleman said. “Of course you don’t need to say the same thing 28,000 times, but you have to say 20,000 people asked this question.”
The final environmental impact statement, which should address all public comment received, is scheduled to be released this spring.