Environmental experts condemn lack of analysis on oil export plans

A half dozen experts had been set to take the witness stand alleging that the threat of an oil spill happening at the Port of Grays Harbor is more of a possibility than local government officials are letting on and the measures permitted to prevent and mitigate for potential spills are woefully inadequate.

“A comprehensive study is needed to evaluate the hazards, risks and appropriate mitigation before placing millions of gallons of crude oil in a seismic, tsunami and liquefaction hazard zone,” says Joseph Wartman, a University of Washington associate professor with a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering. “… The mitigation for Westway and Imperium is inadequate. Building code provisions and warning and evacuation plans are by themselves insufficient mitigation to prevent significant impacts from a tsunami, liquefaction and a seismic event.”

“In the swift and debris laden Chehalis River, oil is not likely to be as effectively and readily contained and/or recovered, thereby providing an opportunity for oil to rapidly spread and impact nearby shorelines in Grays Harbor,” adds Paul S. O’Brien, manager of ECM Maritime Services in Seattle with more than 36 years of experience in the field of oil and hazardous substance spill prevention.

A week-long set of hearings were to begin Sept. 27 in Tumwater by the land-use hearings board. However, the state Shorelines Hearings Board remanded part of the permits for Imperium Renewables and Westway Terminal Co. to offload crude oil at the Port of Grays Harbor and decided the hearings were no longer needed.

Besides Westway and Imperium, a third company called U.S. Development Group is also considering exporting crude oil at a terminal in Hoquiam. U.S. Development has not yet started its permitting process. However, if all three proposals moved forward, it could bring as much as 2.4 billion gallons of crude oil by train through Grays Harbor.

The permit, initially granted by the state Department of Ecology and the city of Hoquiam, was challenged by the Quinault Indian Nation and a coalition of five conservation groups — the Friends of Grays Harbor, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Grays Harbor Audubon and Citizens for a Clean Harbor. Expert witness declarations were recently released by the Quinaults and environmental groups.


“At the project sites, there exists a very high seismic hazard, a very high liquefaction hazard and a high tsunami hazard,” says Wartman, with the University of Washington.

Wartman says there is a 14 percent chance of a magnitude 8-plus earthquake and a 63 percent chance that a magnitude 6-plus earthquake will strike the region during project design life of 50 years, although, he notes that the structures, if approved, would likely be present for much longer than 50 years.

“The Grays Harbor area is known to be a subject to periodic tsunamis,” he adds.

Yet, he notes that crude export proposals are not designed to look out for seismic or geologic hazards and says neither the city nor Ecology looked at the issue in depth.

Wartman notes that the permit’s main protections against spills “are containment berms/alls surrounding the storage tanks. In the event of liquefaction, tsunami or seismic events, these containment systems are likely to be damaged, thus reducing or negating their ability to contain an oil spill after an earthquake. This would allow oil to enter the environment and the water. Evacuation planning, warnings and risk management cannot mitigate against risks posed by locating oil storage tanks in a tsunami zone. Warnings of an impending tsunami or an earthquake cannot prevent damage to an oil storage tank or allow for evacuation of a tank before damage occurs because tsunamis can strike within tens of minutes to hours after an earthquake.”


O’Brien, who worked for the state Department of Ecology for 18 years and was in charge of the state’s oil spill prevention program, disagrees with the strategy his former state agency has taken.

O’Brien says the state and city have requested specific oil spill prevention plans be put in place — but only after the final permits are granted. That “leaves too many unknowns to allow a determination that there will be no probable significant adverse effect to the environment.”

Fred Felleman, an environmental consultant specializing in the impacts of maritime trade on the marine environment in the Pacific Northwest, agrees that a lack of study ahead of time and specifics could lead to a disaster.

“In addition to the primary issue of the timing of the vessel traffic analysis, other aspects of marine traffic are unanalyzed and unknown,” Felleman says. “These issues include details about the tug escorts required — such as horsepower, bollard pull, sea keeping, propulsion characteristics, winch or tethering requirements, or what size vessels are subject to escorts — under what conditions the bar will be closed for oil vessel traffic, if at all; whether there will be different rules for barges versus tankers; and whether barges towed by wire will be allowed.”

O’Brien added that specifics should be happening before the permits are granted, noting there is “limited availability” for oil spill response at the Port of Grays Harbor and neither Imperium nor Westway have provided any specifics in their plans. He says because of the lack of available resources on the Harbor, contractors “would have to supplement their existing inventories with offsite response assets if a spill response from a facility or vessel exceeded available capability.”

“A significant oil spill from either of the two proposed oil facilities could certainly exceed currently available response resources in Grays Harbor,” O’Brien says. “The result of exceeding available response resources would delay a response and allow oil to spread to other areas in Grays Harbor, resulting in increased environmental impacts. However, due to Chehalis River currents that are typically present in the vicinity of both terminals, pre-booming is not considered safe and effective much of the time.”


Paul Rosenfeld, an environmental chemist with a doctorate in soil chemistry from the University of Washington, notes the number of loaded and unloaded trains annually passing through the terminals would potentially rise from 730 in 2012 to 1,703, an increase of 133 percent.

More oil trains means a bigger risk of a derailment and an oil spill into one of the rivers or creeks, according to the testimony.

James Jorgensen, a salmon and steelhead management biologist for the Quinault Indian Nation, noted that if a crude oil spill were to occur upriver because of a derailment, it would devastate the fisheries for the entire Chehalis Basin.

Jorgensen notes the trains from Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad run from Centralia through the towns of Rochester, Oakville, Porter, Elma, Montesano, Aberdeen, Hoquiam to the Port of Grays Harbor.

“That route runs near or adjacent to the Chehalis mainstem for significant distances and it crosses numerous tributary waters of the Chehalis River as it runs northwest and west to Grays Harbor. From the town of Montesano most of the route hugs the north shore of the river and its side-channels, then the estuary before crossing the Wishkah River and arriving at the Port. A major oil spill at any time of the year would harm various life stages of Grays Harbor salmon and steelhead.”


Brent Finley, an environmental consultant and attorney who serves as project manager of Environment International Ltd. also cautions that increasing the number of tanker vessels transiting Grays Harbor, the probability that Grays Harbor will be affected by an oil spill will be increased.

Finley notes that between 1993 and 2006, Grays Harbor ranged between a low of 31 vessels per year to 134 vessels per year. Since 1998, the annual number of tanker vessels entering Grays Harbor has not exceeded 84 tanker vessels.

Using 2012 levels, an average of one tanker vessel is already transiting Grays Harbor every two days, Finley says.

The total vessel entry transits associated with the Imperium and Westway projects would be 260, or 520 entry and departure transits, Finley says.

“When the anticipated traffic from the Imperium proposal is combined with the anticipated traffic from the Westway proposal, there is a 410 percent increase in tanker traffic,” Finley says. “At this rate, a loaded, outbound crude tanker will transit Grays Harbor on average every day and a half.”

Add in the expected tanker traffic from U.S. Development Group’s current proposal of 60 loaded, outbound crude tankers will be departing from Terminal 3, then “there is a 481 percent increase in tanker traffic. At this rate, a loaded, outbound crude vessel would transit Grays Harbor every 1.14 days on average. On average, 2.2 tankers would transit Grays Harbor every day.”

Finley says that adding vessel traffic doesn’t automatically mean there will be an oil spill, “however, Grays Harbor and the neighboring outer coast is a dynamic system. Weather conditions change. Sea state changes. Wave, current and tidal conditions change.”

For the full story, see the Sept. 26, 2013 Vidette print edition or see the story online at www.thevidette.com with a subscription.