For the next few weeks, City of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology officials will spend their time wading through thousands upon thousands of comments all related to the crude oil shipping facilities proposed for Grays Harbor by Westway Teminal Co. and Imperium Renewables.
The agencies sought comments as part of the scoping process for an Environmental Impact Statement, which will examine the environmental effects of the two projects, as well as a third crude-by-rail project proposed by U.S. Development, but not as far along in the process as the other two. Hoquiam and Ecology asked citizens and other organizations to comment on what they think should be analyzed during the study.
However, many of the comments were outside the purview of determining what should be studied in the impact statement, and commenters instead made arguments as to whether the projects should be allowed at all.
Ecology and Hoquiam received a grand total of 22,253 comments during the scoping process, said Ecology spokeswoman Linda Kent. Of the comments, 498 were individual comments — and of the individual comments, 76 were given orally at scoping meetings.
The remaining 21,755 were pre-composed letters — some of them written by the Sierra Club — signed by commenters throughout the nation.
The comment period ran from April 10 to May 27.
Kent said both Ecology and Hoquiam will spend the next few weeks reading the comments, using the information to generate areas of study for the EIS. Then, the agencies will use that information to draft a contract with ICF International, a global consulting firm with offices in Seattle, to complete the EIS.
“Once we get a contract finalized, the project will move into a study phase,” Kent said. “During that time, ICF will gather all the information they need to create the draft EIS.”
Citizens will have another chance to comment once the draft is complete, Kent said. But it’s too early to estimate when that might be.
Government agencies &officials
Several government agencies from Grays Harbor County and beyond contributed comments, some arriving in the form of city council resolutions, some as letters from city managers and others written by mayors or city council members.
Montesano Mayor Ken Estes submitted two separate letters during the scoping period — both of which were written on city letterhead. One expressed his own opinions, which are shared by two City Council members. The other was written at the direction of the remaining council members.
In the first letter, the mayor, joined by Montesano City Council members Pam McElliot and Lyle Powell, expressed some reservations regarding the crude-by-rail projects, though Estes wrote that there was, “no reason to stop the procedure.”
Estes does worry about the condition of the railroad in the letter, citing recent train derailments. He said that allowing the crude-by-rail facilities to operate on the Harbor would likely increase stress on rail infrastructure, including bridges. But he argued that the railroad won’t likely update the infrastructure until the projects are approved.
“We know that unless there is a contract to bring (crude-by-rail) to the Harbor, the railroad has no incentive to make any changes,” Estes wrote.
He said, however, that the facilities and jobs they create would likely have a positive impact on the Grays Harbor community.
Estes took a completely different stance in the second letter, which he said he was compelled to write by a majority vote of the Montesano City Council. He mentioned safety concerns and spill risks, referencing recent train derailments in Aberdeen.
The risks, he wrote, aren’t worth the meager economic rewards.
“The Harbor’s economy is struggling — the Port has done many smart things in the past few years,” Estes wrote. “Bringing crude-by-rail to the Harbor is taking advantage of a struggling economy with the promise of a few jobs, without consideration for the damage and complete devastation it would bring the Harbor should a spill occur, one in which the Harbor may never recover from.”
The Hoquiam City Council also contributed comments during the scoping process after passing a resolution at a May meeting.
“The City of Hoquiam supports the creation of clear federal guidelines to immediately implement safety regulations concerning older-model tank cars used to transport petroleum, train speeds and other identifiable hazards associated with petroleum,” the resolution reads. “The City of Hoquiam strongly urges the U.S. Department of Transportation to increase federal tank car design and operation regulations for petroleum product shipments by rail and aggressively phase out older-model tank cars used to move flammable liquids that are not retrofitted to meet new federal requirements.”
The council also asked the Department of Ecology to study the impacts of an oil spill, disruption of vessel traffic once the facilities are operational, vehicle safety and delays at railroad crossings, rail congestion, the ability of the infrastructure to handle increased rail traffic, increased potential for fires and explosions and the ability of agencies to respond to such situations.
Neither the Aberdeen City Council nor the city’s mayor contributed comments during the scoping period, but Councilman Alan Richrod submitted one on his own. He referenced recent grain car derailments in Grays Harbor County and worried that local municipalities don’t have the resources to respond to spills.
“There is no spill response for this area,” Richrod wrote. “If an oil spill happens east of town in the swamp land, no vehicle can get to it. There is no water passage, there are no roads. Imperium and Westway can store crude oil if they wish, just not here.”
Westport Mayor Michael Bruce and Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler submitted letters, both expressing concerns with the projects. Dingler wrote that she is concerned with both the environmental and safety impacts crude-by-rail could have on the Grays Harbor community.
“Our environment provides human food sources such as shellfish, crab, cranberries and more,” Dingler wrote. “It also feeds the animals and birds that live in and visit our byways and shorelines. Our environment creates millions of dollars through tourism that would disappear if we were hit with oil spill accidents.”
Gary Nelson, executive director of the Port of Grays Harbor, took a different approach and asked that the EIS study the positive impact of the Imperium and Westway projects. He asked for information about the jobs the projects could create, and about the increased funding the projects would provide to schools and city governments through taxes.
“If the only thing that comes out of this EIS process is setting the record straight and putting to rest the fear mongering we have been subjected to these last 12 months, then I would deem both projects an overwhelming success,” Nelson wrote.
Representatives from several neighboring counties and cities located along the railroad — such as Vancouver and Centralia — also submitted comments, as did state agencies such as the state departments of Transportation and Fish &Wildlife.
Several members of the Legislature — Rep. Reuven Carlyle, Rep. Jesslyn Farrell, Rep. Gael Tarleton, Rep. Gerry Pollet, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, Ren. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Rep. Ruth Kagi and Sen. John McCoy — also submitted a joint comment, expressing concerns about the increased threat of oil spills, the impacts of increased rail and vessel traffic and the net economic impacts. The representatives and senators asked that the EIS consider effects on Washington as a whole — not just impacts to the Grays Harbor area.
“Due to the gravity of the proposed projects and widespread nature of the potential impacts, we recommend that the agencies broaden the scope of the review process to include the impacts felt by cities and counties across Washington,” the legislators wrote.
However, legislators representing Grays Harbor County were absent from the conversation.
Earthjustice, a Seattle-based environmental law firm that has represented the Quinault Indian Nation in crude-by-rail matters, submitted a lengthy comment consisting of a 44-page letter and 92 additional attachments — including reports from governmental agencies, articles from trade journals and news stories.
“We stress our concern with the geographic scope of the environmental review,” Earthjustice wrote. “While these projects would be physically located at the Port of Grays Harbor, the area of impact is much greater.”
The law firm also stressed that impacts to Native American and minority populations should be given special attention.
The North Pacific Coast Marine Resources Committee — composed of representatives from Jefferson and Clallam counties, the City of Forks, the Hoh Tribe, the Quileute Tribe, the Makah Tribe and citizens — focused on environmental concerns, such as Grays Harbor’s sensitive environment.
Committee members also expressed concerns with increased vessel traffic and earthquakes.
“The proposed expansion sites and rail corridor are located on fill and other soils prone to liquefaction, post-liquefaction settlement and lateral spreading in the event (of earthquakes),” the committee wrote. “The site corridors also coincide with, or are adjacent to, flood and tsunami zones and critical habitat for (Endangered Species Act) listed species.”
Carol Bernthal, superintendent of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, wrote that the impacts of the crude-by-rail facilities could be felt as far north as Port Angeles, where the sanctuary’s headquarters are located. The sanctuary itself spans the Washington coast from Cape Flattery to just south of Pacific Beach.
“Although the Westway and Imperium projects are not within the sanctuary, products spilled in Grays Harbor could flush from the estuary and be carried into sanctuary waters and onto adjacent shorelines,” Bernthal wrote. “In addition, each of these projects anticipates a significant increase in petroleum product transport through Grays Harbor and along the outer Washington coast, which increases the risk for petroleum spills in open ocean areas.”
She asked that vessel traffic and spill response be studied over the course of the EIS process.
Hundreds of individual citizens — most of whom claimed that allowing crude oil shipping on Grays Harbor would be a disaster under any circumstance — also submitted comments both by mail and online. Online commenters wrote from as far away as Athens, Ga. — but most live in Washington, Oregon or Montana.
“It is patently obvious that putting ANY oil terminals in the Port of Grays Harbor is a very bad idea,” wrote Yovonne Autrey of Ocean Shores. “None of the towns through which these oil trains will pass have sufficient emergency response capability and resources to deal with a derailment and explosions like those that occurred all too frequently in 2013. Likewise, the State of Washington does not have the resources to deal with a large oil spill and the federal government does not have the money to throw at the problem. Any oil spill in Grays Harbor would be a tragedy for the environment as well as for the people of the communities surrounding Grays Harbor.”
Mark McFeely, of Aberdeen, wrote that while he hoped for economic growth in Grays Harbor County, crude-by-rail would cause more harm than good.
“I’m not against the growth of the Port of Grays Harbor or increased rail traffic,” McFeely said. “I am, however, against the cargo they are transporting (Bakken crude). I do believe safety has been overlooked for the all-mighty dollar in this instance. This will have very little impact as far as jobs. It’s putting our pristine waterways in serious jeopardy. The risk outweighs the rewards … (it’s) not even remotely close.”
Most local commenters, however, took advantage of an April 24 scoping meeting, where they made their comments verbally.
Many of the commenters expressed safety concerns, and many referenced oil train explosions from the past year. Hoquiam resident Brian Sterling asked who would have the responsibility of fighting oil fires when they happen.
“I do not believe that our communities have the resources to fight large-scale oil fires,” Sterling said.
Another common worry: the state of the railroad tracks running between Centralia and Hoquiam. Many of the commenters speculated that the tracks can’t withstand increased traffic.
Wes Brosman said the tracks are in such a state of disrepair that they could easily be dismantled by vandals.
“This track could be sabotaged by a set of tools and a clever 12-year-old,” Brosman said.
Several local elected officials — including Rep. Dean Takko of Longview, Grays Harbor County Commissioner Frank Gordon, Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp, Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines and Ocean Shores Mayor Dingler — were also in the crowd. But only Gordon and Sharp took the opportunity to voice their opinions.
“Quinault opposes oil on Grays Harbor and is in this fight to win,” Sharp said. She left the meeting soon after making her comments.
For more infomation about the EIS process, visit www.ecy.wa.gov/geographic/graysharbor/terminals.html.