TAHOLAH — All three Port of Grays Harbor commissioners and their top staff held a rare special meeting at the Quinault Indian Nation Tribal Chambers Thursday to discuss the three pending proposals to ship crude oil through Port facilities in Hoquiam.
Among the central issues were potential harm to tribal fishing and natural resources, the marine and river environments, and whether the tribe would be consulted as the permit and environmental review process unfolds. The Quinault Nation requested the meeting to talk about the oil shipping proposal and other issues.
“Our history is up and down this coast, along with the Hohs and Quileutes, the Makahs, and our neighbors to the south in Shoalwater Bay,” said Ed Johnstone, Quinault tribal fisheries spokesperson, illustrating how any decision that affects the marine environment affects all tribes on the coast. “We’ve been here since the creator put us here, which is a long time.”
The 1855 Quinault River Treaty with the U.S. government was what initially paved the way for development of Grays Harbor, Johnstone noted. But it also gave the tribe sovereign rights to its natural resources, which ‘“are very dear to us,” he said. “It is how we live and fish and crab and smelt.”
Port officials said they currently are considering plans from two existing tenants, Westway Terminals and Imperium Renewables, that have applied for initial permits to export crude oil from North American deep wells by rail and ship by expanding their existing operations at the Port. A third company, US Development, now has an access agreement with the Port while it studies building a separate facility at the Port’s Terminal 3 near the wastewater treatment plant in Hoquiam. All three proposals would be in the city of Hoquiam, which is the co-lead permit agency with the state Department of Ecology.
Port Commission President Chuck Caldwell described the proposals as currently being in the study phase, such as when the Port previously considered the possibility of shipping coal through Grays Harbor before those ideas were abandoned.
“We’re still in the infant stages and we’re all working to get all the best information put together before the final decision is made,” he said.
“We’re definitely interested,” Caldwell added. “We’ve always been pushing for worker bees. We’re pushing for employment on the Harbor … . That’s completely and totally in our minds when we are working on these projects.”
Port Executive Director Gary Nelson explained that Westway and Imperium are now involved in a checklist process for the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). US Development is expected to complete its initial site review within the next two or three weeks, he added.
“I think they are interested in proceeding,” Nelson said of the Terminal 3 site.
He noted that one of the questions asked by opponents of the projects is why not do something else to generate jobs?
“We work in a competitive environment at the Port, with all the ports up and down the coast,” Nelson said. “It would be nice if we could pick and choose, but we don’t get to do that. We are always hoping to attract businesses that are going to provide family wage jobs and anything associated typically with the waterfront.”
The Port, he added, has looked at a number of commodities over the past 10 years, turning a number away.
“When it comes to the crude-by-rail handling, we had a lot of interest by companies to do this and we kind of went through the interview process,” Nelson said of how the Port arrived at the current proposals. “We didn’t just pick the first ones that came through the door. We wanted somebody who could demonstrate to us that they had prior experience and a safety record that was above reproach.”
For the Quinaults, Johnstone said the biggest issue was the risk of any accident or harm to sea life, asking whether there was even a baseline of information to assess what the risk of damage might be?
“Those are the things we consider when we talk about risk, and what I see is a lot of risk and I don’t know what the reward is,” he said. “We’re not going to risk our livelihood, and our culture and our resources.”
Nelson said the issue of risk was one the Port weighed, too.
“We wouldn’t bring (a proposal) forward to the commissioners if we felt those risks couldn’t be prevented or mitigated,” Nelson said.
The next step would be to work with the state Department of Ecology and other agencies with regulatory oversight to outline the concerns on both land and water, Nelson said. That could include how to ensure safe transit in and out of the Harbor for the barges and double-hull tankers that would transport the crude to refineries, largely on the West Coast.
Crude shipments already are being conducted on the Columbia River, Nelson said, and Grays Harbor makes for far safer passage, with the capacity to handle the added shipping traffic.
“One of the advantages here is that we don’t have a lot of traffic,” Nelson said, which means less chance of any mishap.
Quinault Tribal Council Vice Chairman Andrew Mail said it appeared from initial public reaction that the crude proposals had little support, although the Port estimates all three could bring more than 125 permanent jobs combined. Mail also questioned the impact increased rail traffic would have, not only in Aberdeen but throughout the Chehalis River valley.
“It really seems like you are fighting a huge uphill battle to try to get crude oil here,” Mail said.
Tribal leaders note that Quinault-related enterprises and business now employs more than 700 people with the Quinault Resort and Casino and the new Q-Mart in Aberdeen, in addition to seafood, fishing and timber businesses.
Dave Bingaman, Quinault Natural Resources Director, noted he recently has received initial notice from the state Department of Ecology about the crude proposals. Some of his personal questions were whether the Port would have to dredge the shipping channel deeper (he was told, no) and what impact the shipping traffic would have on treaty fishing opportunities.
Nelson estimated the added vessel traffic to be about one ship a week, or as many as 60 additional ships a year, which would be “less than half of what we were at 15 years ago.” Also, Nelson emphasized none of the projects were “contingent upon channel improvements,” while acknowledging the Port is currently discussing the possibility of a deeper draft (2 feet to an authorized 38 feet over the current 36-foot level) with the Army Corps of Engineers.
Former Makah Tribal Chairman Micah McCarty also attended the meeting and described how the Neah Bay tribe in 1991 had to deal with the oil spill from the shipwreck of the Japanese fish processor Tenyo Maru. He described picking up oiled birds and seeing the beach covered with soiled kelp.
In the aftermath, McCarty helped organize the tribe’s Office of Marine Affairs, which has secured a full-time tugboat and other equipment to help prevent ship groundings in the area and provide around-the-clock response to oil spills in tribal waters. But he believes the tribe often was not well equipped to “be effective at the table,” when it came to the settlement funds that ultimately were distributed from the Tenyo Maru disaster.
“You can’t put a price tag on the damages to a cultural environment,” McCarty said. “You can’t put a price tag on what it means to the tribes.”
Quinault Tribal Councilman James Sellers thanked the Port officials for addressing their concerns, noting that “those are concerns that are always here for us with regards to the environment.”
“I appreciate that we are communicating,” Johnstone told the commissioners. “We respect our neighbors and we suffer when they suffer, and they suffer when we suffer. This is all about not suffering. We have to protect what we have. We have a very fragile ecosystem.”
Port Commissioner Stan Pinnick assured the tribal officials that while the Port looks at the economic issues, it also will examine the environmental concerns.
“We are very aware and conscious of listening to our citizens and all the concerns,” he said. “We want everything on the table in an open format so we can answer all the questions that all parties have. From my point of view, it has to be a balance between environmental protection and economic value.”
Pinnick also said the oil shipping industry is “one of the highly regulated industries in the nation.”
Caldwell said the decision had not yet been made to go forward and that he had similar concerns as a lifelong Harbor resident.
“I was born and raised on the Harbor. I was born in Westport and the fishing industry is in my blood. My whole family retired from the fishing industry,” he noted. “So that is also in our minds.”