A citizens group outlined a number of environmental and safety concerns Wednesday night about three separate proposals to ship crude oil by rail from the Bakken oil fields in the Dakotas to West Coast refineries, through the Port of Grays Harbor.
Sponsored by Citizens for a Clean Harbor, the public meeting at Hoquiam High School was designed to allow for more citizen comment about the proposals than was allowed at a Port workshop on the issue Jan. 30.
About 55 people attended, including representatives from the state Department of Ecology, the city of Hoquiam, the Port and even one of the companies, Imperium Renewables.
“What we really need is to insist on a rigorous EIS, an environmental impact statement, to analyze the impacts of these three projects, including the impacts of the capacity of the rail and the capacity of shipping,” said R. D. Grunbaum, one of the co-presenters, along with Grays Harbor Audubon Society President Arnie Martin.
They showed a presentation outlining their concerns about the impact on the area, as well as how the oil is produced through the process of high-pressure hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” and deep, directional drilling in the Bakken formation that stretches from southern Alberta, Canada into North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.
“The rail trip is over 1,500 miles,” Martin said.
He and Grunbaum specifically questioned the impact the shipping and a potential spill or accident would have on commercial and tribal fishing and shellfish growers, as well as what a potential spill inland or derailment would do to numerous creeks and rivers that have to be crossed by rail coming through the Chehalis Valley and into Aberdeen.
“There are over 100 crossings of creeks, rivers and streams along the way, and at least 27 of them are known to be fish-bearing,” Martin said, noting trains would be a mile and a half long, likely blocking traffic along the route. Each unit train, he said, would be 120-125 cars long, holding an estimated 3.5 million gallons of crude oil.
The current plans to ship the oil by rail from the North American oil fields are in different stages of development and permitting. The companies are existing Port tenants Westway Terminals and Imperium Renewables, and US Development, a Houston-based private company operating since 1995, specializing in shipping crude oil by rail, with a number of logistics terminals around the country.
The Port has been supportive of the proposals as a way to bring more jobs to the Harbor, and recently took out advertising touting the benefits of the new business.
The presentation by Port Executive Director Gary Nelson Jan. 30 acknowledged the concerns about rail and ship safety, but also said the rail tank cars “are designed to U.S. Department of Transportation standards” with “safety features to prevent leakage or spills in the event of a derailment or rollover.”
Nelson’s presentation said the labor force at the marine terminals have handled liquid bulk materials and oil products in the past and that under current marine safety regulations, adopted in 1990, single-hull tankers (5,000 gross tons or higher) are prevented from operating in U.S. waters. The types of vessels planned for the marine shipments, according to the Port, are double-hulled barges and ships.
The Port estimates the economic investment of the proposals to be in excess of $100 million, “expanding the assessed valuation of the county” while creating at least 125 permanent jobs and numerous temporary jobs during construction of the facilities.
Grunbaum, one of the co-founders of the citizens group Friends of Grays Harbor, Martin and a number of other members of the audience questioned the process under which the proposals would be permitted. Hoquiam and the DOE are sharing co-lead agency responsibilities for the initial environmental checklist review, they were told.
Martin expressed concerns about what would happen in the event of an earthquake or a tsunami with all the new storage so close to the water. He also noted the US Development proposal would place oil storage tanks directly across from what is proposed to be a new visitors center for the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge.
“This project is in a state of flux … they have not finished their design,” Martin said of that proposal for Terminal 3 at the far west end of Hoquiam.
According to the the citizens group, here is what is known about the other proposals:
• Westway Terminals is up first because the company was first to apply. Storage would be for as much as 13.4 million gallons of crude oil. The company has been operating in the Harbor since 2008, with its primary previous product being methanol. The proposal would add four tanks of 80,000 barrels each for crude, which would be brought by rail and shipped out by articulated barge.
• Imperium Renewables would add more than twice what Westway is proposing. Imperium foresees adding nine storage tanks to its existing facility, in two phases: five in the first phase, and four tanks in the second phase. Each tank would be 95 feet in diameter and 64 feet tall, holding 80,000 barrels each, with a total of 720,000 barrels for all nine.
Martin noted the oil storage would be next to Fry Creek, which has been restored to improve the water quality. He also questioned plans for a containment berm. “In the event of a tank rupture, there is little room around the tanks for flow,” he said.
Several citizens wanted to know how to insist the companies mitigate any potential damage up front, and one woman who lives near where the US Development facility would be located wanted to know how the city and Port could even consider such an industry for the Harbor. Another resident, who identified himself as a Longshoreman, pointed out that there have been oil terminals on the Harbor in the past.
Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay said the city in recent years completed a comprehensive plan and zoning code after several public meetings and with full City Council approval. That plan called for industrial development in exactly the area where US Development is proposing its oil shipping facility.
“If the citizens didn’t want to have any industry, we could have no industrial zones and everything could be zoned residential,” Shay said. “That’s what a citizen can do to stop industry from going into a certain area. But our Planning Commission, our citizens as a whole and the City Council set up zoning classifications that allow for commercial and industrial in our city. So all of these sites, whether people agree or not, allow for this type of industry to be located on those properties.”
Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, manager of the Department of Ecology’s spills preparedness section, told the citizens that the state does have some experience in dealing with the potential for a spill in Grays Harbor. The DOE currently regulates Imperium, she said.
“These companies have to have prevention plans, and they have to have operations manuals that describe how they will safely operate. They have to have access to cleanup contractors. They have to actually analyze their risk and prepare to be able to respond to what their worst-case scenario would be,” she said. “So we have a plan for the vessel side of this, too.”
Pilkey-Jarvis noted the proposals for the crude oil might now cause the state to go from one plan in the Harbor to four plans. Currently, there are two response spill contractors on Grays Harbor, both under contract to Imperium, which would not be adequate if all three proposals move forward.
“It all starts with the companies defining what their worst-case scenarios might be and then getting prepared for it,” she said.
At the same time, Pilkey-Jarvis acknowledged the state has not had this many proposals for such shipments, “and this rail phenomenon is huge.” She said there already is a new facility on the Columbia River to handle crude oil shipments.
“We really do have to pay attention to being ready for spills,” she said.
Shay told the citizens that there is a formal public comment period that would be part of the environmental review process outlined in the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
“We’re not quite yet at that point,” Shay said of the joint city-DOE review of the Westway and Imperium proposals. “We have received draft SEPA checklists, shorelines permits, local areas reports and other associated application materials… . So we are currently reviewing whether or not those are complete applications.”
After that determination is made in the next couple of weeks, Shay said, a more formal review phase will begin.
“I would say that anything that has been submitted is a public document,” Shay said. The state DOE staff members vowed to let citizens know of decisions and steps in the process by email. Public notice also must be given through an advertisement in the city of Hoquiam’s newspaper of record, which happens to be the Montesano Vidette.
Only once in the meeting did the question-and-answer session get a little heated when one man questioned how everyone got to the meeting. “You all drove here,” he declared. “… You burned gasoline and diesel, at least 99 percent of you. It’s OK to have this in somebody else’s backyard, but not yours.”
But before tensions got out of hand, Linda Orgel, one of the organizers of the event, announced: “We forgot the most important thing when we started this. There are ground rules here. We will not have a shouting match.”
Grunbaum acknowledged the question was a legitimate one. “That is a question: What do we do without oil, without gas? That’s one of the things I think we all need to think about. How do we transition from fossil fuels? We know one thing that we have learned and that is if we don’t transition, we will be just like the oil — dead organisms.”