Shorelines Hearings Board sides with Quinaults on crude-by-rail projects

The state Shorelines Hearings Board plans to rule that the City of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology didn’t account for all relevant factors when issuing permits for two crude-by-rail projects on Grays Harbor.

In siding with the Quinault Indian Nation’s appeal filed in June, the board said in a letter that the Determination of Non-Significance rulings for projects proposed by Westway Terminal Co. and Imperium Renewables, issued by the City of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology, will likely be revoked.

The letter, signed by the board’s Administrative Appeals Judge Kay M. Brown, states that a majority of board members will rule that Hoquiam and Ecology didn’t adequately account for the cumulative impacts of all three proposed crude-by-rail projects on Grays Harbor, agreeing with the Quinaults that a proposal by U.S. Development Group should also have been considered.

The board’s letter goes on to say the agencies also didn’t properly consider the impacts on rail transportation and shipping when issuing the permits. The city and the department should have required a rail transportation impact analysis and a vessel traffic analysis prior to issuing the determination, Brown wrote.

The board will also inform the City of Hoquiam and the Department of Ecology that the environmental analysis “didn’t appear significantly robust pertaining to seismic hazards, archaeological and cultural resources and oil spill hazards,” she wrote.

However, parties on both sides of the case are unsure what comes next. Kristen Boyles of Earthjustice, the law firm representing the Quinault Indian Nation, said she hopes the board will require Westway and Imperium to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — a costly process that can sometimes take years. Quinault officials are calling the letter an environmental victory.

“We will not let Grays Harbor become an Alberta Tar sands and North Dakota oil depot,” said President Fawn Sharp. “Our history and fishing livelihood demand we protect these waters.”

On the other hand, Hoquiam officials are confident an EIS won’t be necessary, and that companies will be able to re-file their State Environmental Policy Act paperwork after completing rail and shipping analyses.

“The letter did not say that an EIS should have been required,” said City Administrator Brian Shay. “And I don’t think it will be. All it says is that they will be required to do additional studies and then turn in their amended paperwork.”

“We’re willing to do anything we need to do to be supportive of the law,” added Mayor Jack Durney.

But Ecology officials are reserving judgment for when the Shoreline Appeals Hearings Board releases an official decision. Linda Kent, an Ecology spokeswoman, said there’s not enough evidence to start moving forward. Jan Buechler, a legal assistant with the state Environmental Land Use Hearings Office, said the Shorelines Hearings Board will issue a formal decision in the coming weeks.

So far, Westway and Imperium haven’t been dissuaded from moving forward with their projects. Shay said he talked to Westway officials two weeks ago, and they still intend to build a crude oil shipping facility on Grays Harbor.

Imperium released a press release Wednesday, in which CEO John Plaza reiterated his desire to bring crude-by-rail to Hoquiam. The release also said the company has already hired consultants to further investigate impacts on rail and vessel traffic.

“Imperium has every confidence that the pending final decision from the Shorelines Hearing Board will ultimately lead Imperium to obtaining its desired expansion permits in the near future,” 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.”

Shay said he’s unsure where the third company, U.S. Development, stands. He said he hasn’t heard from the company in recent months, and he’s not sure if or when permit applications will be filed.

“What’s troubling to me about the letter is it looks like we’re supposed to take into consideration a project from a company that hasn’t even applied for permits,” Shay said. “We’re not sure how we’re supposed to account for cumulative impacts when we don’t have any data from them.”