Mystery decision in crude-by-rail appeals

A decision has been made about whether two proposals for crude oil storage at the Port of Grays Harbor will be free to go ahead with the permitting process, or have to stop for environmental study. The state just isn’t ready to say what that decision is.

In the appeals of elements of Westway Terminals’ and Imperium Renewables’ crude-by-rail projects, the Environmental and Land Use Hearings Office Shorelines Hearings Board sent a letter Tuesday stating it is canceling appeals hearings and will grant one of the motions filed asking for summary judgment.

There are at least six motions for summary judgment, each citing different issues. Supporters of the projects are asking for the appeals to be dismissed and the projects allowed to proceed with the permitting process. Opponents are asking that the projects be stopped for a full Environmental Impact Statement.

“There were several motions filed in that case from both sides, all sides,” Hoquiam City Attorney Steve Johnson said. This is the first time in his tenure the city has had a case get to the board.

Tuesday’s brief letter cancels the upcoming hearing and a conference call set for Wednesday, but doesn’t say which motion or motions it plans to grant. The board may also grant elements of several motions.

The board declined to clarify any elements of its letter after calls to its office Wednesday. A spokesperson did note that letters such as the one sent in this case are commonly used when the board has a backlog of cases. It could be several weeks before the official order is issued.

“The only thing that is certain is that we are not having the hearing/trial scheduled for Sept. 27 through Oct. 4,” Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay said.

Both projects have been issued shoreline substantial development permits by the City of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology. Westway and Imperium want to expand existing fuel storage capacity. A third project is proposed near Bowerman Field, but there is no decision on a shoreline permit for that one so far.

The Quinault Indian Nation and a coalition of five environmental groups — Friends of Grays Harbor, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Grays Harbor Audubon, and Citizens for a Clean Harbor — filed appeals of the permits, saying the projects need to have a full EIS before moving forward.

Kristen Boyles of Earthjustice wrote a statement on behalf of both groups.

“While the board has not issued an order, the board’s remand of the permits means that some aspect of the permits must be corrected, and neither the Westway nor Imperium crude-by-rail terminals can begin construction,” she wrote.

She’s referring to a sentence in the letter stating that a future order would be issued “granting summary judgment and remanding the applications to the City.”

“That’s the part that makes us cautiously optimistic,” Boyles said.

“We’re quite excited about it, ” R.D. Grunbaum of Friends of Grays Harbor said.

On the remanding of the permits, he said, “We don’t know what that means, except that in some sense, the board has denied the permits and they can’t go forward. … They’re going to have to do something. What that something is, we don’t know at this present time.”

That interpretation is far from agreed, with the city and the companies maintaining that everyone will have to wait for the full decision to know exactly what the board meant.

“We are not interpreting it one way or the other at this stage, we are going to wait for the ruling to come down,” Westway vice-president Robbie Johnson said.

“Because we have not yet seen or read the full decision by the Shoreline Hearing Board, we’re going to withhold comment about what it means for the project or for Imperium,” founder and president John Plaza said. “We remain committed to the terminal expansion as it is a strategic priority for Imperium and its success will create new opportunities for us and significant economic development in the region.”

Once the order is handed down, the city or the groups filing appeals can appeal again at the Superior Court level. That might be heard in Grays Harbor Superior Court or Thurston County Superior Court, where many state agency decision reviews are held, Johnson said.

“If the decision goes against the city and the Department of Ecology, it would probably mean they (Imperium and Westway) would have to do an Environmental Impact Statement,” he said.

For the moment, the only certainty is that the exhaustive preparation for the appeal hearings can stop.

“I’d have been in Seattle all day today and tomorrow doing depositions and in Lacey tomorrow,” Johnson said Wednesday. “And there’s no need to do that, at least not now.”