Westway comments show concerns, support for oil

Public comments opposing expansion of the Westway Terminals’ Port of Grays Harbor facility in Hoquiam to handle shipments of crude oil outnumbered supportive comments by more than a two to one ratio.

The comments were solicited as part of the process to review an environmental finding by the City of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology last month. They issued a “mitigated determination of non-significance” for the project under the State Environmental Protection Act, meaning the company had sufficient plans to offset any negative impacts from the project.

The agencies accepted comment about the determination through last week, and about 40 were received. Some just had questions about the project, but overall, the negative comments numbered more than double the positive.

“If the comments point out something we should give additional consideration to, then the determination could be revisited and revised. So that’s something that’s currently being done now by the city and Ecology,” Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay said.

The comments raise numerous issues, from concerns about the smell of crude oil and noise from increased shipping, to specific questions about building in a tsunami hazard zone or emissions and wake from increased ship traffic.

Some letters were just lists of questions, but the format at this point of the review doesn’t include replies to the letters, Shay noted.

“This is a SEPA comment period, not a SEPA question and answer period,” he said.

Some of the more specific questions will likely be answered at some point during the permitting process, which will involve at least 26 permits.

The non-profit environmental law organization Earthjustice has reported that it is representing the Quinault Indian Nation in a federal lawsuit opposing the Westway project. The tribe also submitted a lengthy letter to the city outlining a litany of issues with the plan, including concerns about tribal fishing rights on Grays Harbor and its tributaries, and requesting a more extensive review in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement.

“The Quinault Indian Nation has an obvious and keen interest in protecting the fish and fish habitat that it relies on in Grays Harbor to exercise its federally-guaranteed treaty fishing rights, as well as the traditional areas used for gathering plants for traditional cultural use. Additionally, the Quinault Nation’s treaty fishing right includes a right of access to its traditional fishing areas and any impact to that right is an unconstitutional taking of a property right. These collective federally-protected treaty rights must be considered and addressed — the State of Washington cannot take actions that impinge the Quinault Indian Nation’s treaty rights,” the letter reads.

The tribe also asserts that the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council should have jurisdiction to review the project.

“We are currently reviewing their letter, along with every other one that we have received,” Shay said.

A letter from Seattle attorney Knoll Lowney, representing Friends of Grays Harbor, the Grays Harbor chapter of the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Washington Environmental Council and Citizens for a Clean Harbor, compared the project to a coal shipping operation proposed at Cherry Point near Bellingham. In that case, an EIS was required.

“It is unimaginable that the co-lead agencies would allow the development of an oil pipeline and crude oil terminals without an EIS, and the risks of this proposal are not mitigated simply because the crude is being transported by rail. Indeed, evidence suggests that crude-by-train carries three times the spill risk as an oil pipeline,” Lowney wrote.

Shay did note the project in the coal example involved extensive construction along the shoreline, something Westway hasn’t proposed.

Lowney also argued that the containment area proposed in Westway’s SEPA checklist wouldn’t be enough in a really catastrophic situation in which all the oil tanks were leaking. The current plan accounts for one tank’s worth of oil and six inches of rainwater.

Several people asked about soil liquefaction during a tsunami, plans to account for sea level rise and how safety measures controlled electronically would operate during an outage.

Although it’s not specifically required in the SEPA checklist, many letters encouraged the city to consider the cumulative impacts of all three proposed oil shipping operations.

Along with Westway’s project, Imperium Renewables has proposed a similar expansion to its Port site, and U.S. Development Group has been seeking to develop its own operation.

“Even if one were to ignore the fact that U.S. Development is about to submit applications for a crude-by-rail terminal, the lead agencies must consider the cumulative impacts from the Port of Grays Harbor’s development plans. The Port has adopted the goal of developing the Terminal 3 property as a rail-to-ship commodity transportation facility, and the Corps of Engineers is facilitating this effort through the deepening of the transportation channel. The co-lead agencies must consider cumulative impacts relating rail and vessel transportation, as well as emergency response,” Lowney wrote.

Most of the letters were from regular citizens worried about long-term impacts on their homes and lives.

“I generally favor a well-designed facility in Hoquiam, but am concerned about a failure of various government units to recognize certain risks involved in such facilities. … Crude oil is not, itself, explosive. But it has volatile vapors that can be. I lived in Tulsa and recognize the smell of crude oil there and the near impossibility of its total containment,” Jim George of Hoquiam wrote.

“This is not a (mitigated determination of non-significance) — this is a ‘look the other way’ situation. As a citizen of Grays Harbor County living on the Chehalis River, on the edge of a Natural Area Preserve, and a very special estuary, I demand a full environmental impact statement. This is serious and needs to be dealt with in that manner,” Dave Hatley of Aberdeen said.

Others were very supportive of the projects, citing needed improvements to rail infrastructure that would finally be justified by increased traffic, the good environmental record of the company and, perhaps most importantly in a county long plagued by high unemployment, family-wage jobs.

“While waiting for a train to pass is inconvenient, I welcome the economic activity this traffic brings to our community. Each rail car, regardless of commodity, is a sign that a Harborite is working, a welcome sign for a community with high unemployment and low median household income,” wrote Mark Hopsecger, president Coast Controls & Automation, Inc. in Montesano.

Julie Gage of Hoquiam said the projects are consistent with other growth at the Port.

“I feel the checklist provided an accurate and detailed account of the actual environmental impacts of the proposed project. It appears that greenhouse gases, storm water runoff and spill prevention has been considered and you have identified adequate mitigation measures for these potential impacts,” she wrote.

Shay said the city and Ecology hope to finish their review of the comments this week. There’s no specific timeline for deciding whether or not the determination stands or if a more extensive review will be required.

“If we feel like the (mitigated determination of non-significance) adequately addresses the comments that we received, then the next step is to move forward with the shorelines permit,” Shay said.