Whatcom residents weigh in on Shell oil train project

Oil trains on Oct. 8, 2014 at the BP Cherry Point Refinery rail loop.
Oil trains on Oct. 8, 2014 at the BP Cherry Point Refinery rail loop. The Bellingham Herald

Dozens of people concerned about Shell’s proposed oil train facility in Anacortes asked the state to study the risks of a train derailing and exploding and other topics during a public comment session Tuesday night, Oct. 13.

The meeting was the first of three the state Department of Ecology will host to ask what should be included in an analysis of possible impacts of the project at Shell’s Anacortes refinery.

Plenty of Whatcom County and Bellingham residents were among the speakers. Some pointed out that the two refineries in Whatcom County (and Tesoro’s Anacortes facility) were not required to undergo the detailed environmental study that activists have pushed for with Shell’s project — before they started to get oil trains from North Dakota’s Bakken region.

“In Whatcom County, no environmental impact statement was required, this was simply approved,” said Dr. Frank James of Bellingham, addressing a crowd gathered outside before the meeting. Many of those present were wearing red shirts and holding up signs from the coalition Stand Up to Oil that said “I stand against oil trains and oil spills.”

James served as an expert witness in favor of studying the potential health impacts of the project when RE Sources for Sustainable Communities sued to ensure the environmental impact study would be required. James called for a formal health impact assessment to be required before the project can move forward.

“It wasn’t required before because people did not speak out,” James said. “The people of Whatcom County are not protected.”

Whatcom oil train facilities

Back when BP Cherry Point refinery first started the process of permitting its rail facility in 2012, local groups that typically scrutinize fossil fuel projects did not try to argue against the county’s determination that the impacts would not have more than a moderate impact on environmental quality.

The real big thing that changed for us is the trains started exploding.

Matt Petryni, RE Sources’ Clean Energy Program manager

Both BP and Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale were able to permit their facilities and start getting deliveries without being required to do the in-depth environmental study that Shell’s project will get.

Phillips 66 received its first train Nov. 17, 2014 and is permitted to get an average of one train loaded with around 100 tank cars of crude oil every other day. BP got its first shipment on Dec. 26, 2013, and is permitted to get an average of one train per day. If the facilities exceed those levels, they would have to submit to additional environmental review from Whatcom County.

So why push for Shell’s project to get this study now?

“The real big thing that changed for us is the trains started exploding,” said Matt Petryni, RE Sources’ Clean Energy Program manager, in an interview Wednesday. “It’s not something you would have immediately assumed, and even if we had assumed the trains would explode, I think we would have had a hard time convincing everybody that was the case.”

Alex Ramel, extreme oil field director at ForestEthics, echoed those thoughts, saying the timeline of events explains why this project is getting more scrutiny:

▪ Tesoro Anacortes received its permits in 2011;

▪ BP Cherry Point received its permits in October 2012;

▪ Phillips 66 received permits in April 2013;

▪ Then in July 2013, a train hauling Bakken crude oil exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying buildings;

▪ In November 2013, an oil train derailed, caught fire and spilled 749,000 gallons of oil in Aliceville, Alabama,

▪ In December 2013 Shell applied for permits for its Anacortes rail facility.

“What we know about the danger of these trains is what changed,” Ramel wrote in an email. “The other refineries should have gotten more scrutiny.”

Though the environmental study won’t have a regulatory impact on Whatcom’s refineries, Ramel wrote, if the analysis includes studying impacts that are off-site but associated with transporting the crude oil there, “those impacts will be similar to those caused by the existing oil trains and will give us a chance to learn about the risks and consequences of the Whatcom refinery oil trains.”

Comments on scope of Shell’s study

Speakers gave Ecology many ideas for what to include in the study of the project, and outlined their varied concerns about oil transportation in general.

Ramel’s 14-year-old son, Alden Ramel, told the crowd he was not there because his dad made him come, but because he was concerned about getting shouldered with the adverse consequences of oil transport.

“Me and my generation and everyone I care about is going to have to clean this up at some point because it’s a huge deal,” Alden said. “It’s a huge deal, and exploding oil trains, no one likes the sound of that.”

Some called for detailed study of what will happen when wetlands are cleared on the site, including any impacts on eel grass, herring, salmon and orca whales.

Others called to see what the increased traffic would do to the aging Skagit River railway bridge, and to the rail corridor in general.

One man said he came all the way from Spokane to ask that impacts on his city also be studied, as it serves as the rail gateway to Washington state for trains coming west from North Dakota.

Another woman asked that Ecology study the overall impact that burning the oil from the proposed average of six trains per week would have on the environment and planet.

At least a few people said they wanted to know what impacts more train traffic might have on how long it takes for emergency crews to respond to various parts of Skagit County, as trains moving slowly through certain areas can take several minutes to clear a rail crossing so traffic can move again.

Ecology will host another comment period and open house in Lynnwood from 4 to 8 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Lynnwood Convention Center, 3711 196th St. SW.

Comments can also be submitted online at ShellRailEis.com/comment through Nov. 5. Comments can also be called in to 844-254-9668.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.