Skagit Valley Sounds Off
Ecology prepares impact report on oil-by-rail
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Not that Anacortes isn’t well acquainted—even friendly—with Shell Oil. They’ve lived together for 104 years. That long ago, Shell made its first venture into the U.S. gas and oil business with a terminal a few miles from where its refinery now operates.
At Anacortes Middle School last week, a number of speakers critical of Shell’s proposed oil-by-rail project began by stressing that Shell has been an O.K. neighbor, an excellent employer and supporter of local schools. Then they turned a verbal corner to say, “However…”
The “however” is Bakken crude oil, the highly volatile feedstock Shell wishes to bring into the Skagit community by the trainload. The same that has made itself famous in 10 spectacular explosions in the United States and Canada since 2013.
The Wall Street Journal, hardly a messenger of environmental hysteria, says one tank car of Bakken holds the explosive potential of two million sticks of dynamite. Its flash point—the temperature at which it can ignite in the air—is about the same as that of gasoline.
The Anacortes gathering was one of three “scoping” meetings where individuals and organizations were given two minutes each to suggest issues that need study as part of an Environmental Impact Statement. The EIS will size up Shell Oil’s proposal to outfit its refinery with a new rail yard and unloading structure to handle six oil trains—slightly more than 600 tank cars of Bakken oil—every week.
Exploding tank cars seemed to be on almost everyone’s mind. One after another, citizens shared their worries about the safety of schools, homes and playgrounds within federally designated evacuation zones (half a mile on each side of the railroad)—known among Shell’s critics as the “blast zone”—for trains carrying Bakken oil.
Tom Glade, president of Evergreen Islands, one of several environmental groups that pressed Skagit County to require the EIS, urged a detailed engineering study of Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s two Skagit Valley railroad bridges that the loaded oil trains would cross on their way to Shell. The swing bridge at the north end of Swinomish Channel was put in place 62 years ago. The Skagit River Bridge at Mount Vernon turns 100 next year. Glade says a derailment and spill at either bridge would be catastrophic.
Art Preston had a short and blunt question—is Shell’s proposal even legal? He doubted the propriety of considering a development permit while a lawsuit is pending to determine whether BNSF can legally run its proposed level of oil train traffic across the Swinomish Indian Reservation. The Swinomish have gone to federal court, claiming BNSF is limited by a written agreement with the tribe that allows only two 25-car trains per day, no matter what they carry.
Jan Woodruff of Anacortes wants the EIS researchers to investigate an apparently high incidence of cancer in the zip code that includes Anacortes. She helped organize a study that indicated a markedly higher rate of three types of cancer, compared to the rest of the state. Woodruff wants the EIS to examine the data and determine whether airborne or waterborne byproducts of the refining process could be causing cancer.
Chiara Rose D’Angelo Patricio, the Fairhaven College student who suspended herself from the anchor chain of Shell’s icebreaker Arctic Challenger in Bellingham Bay at the peak of the anti-Shell protests last summer, came to the Mount Vernon scoping session with a scientific challenge: study what she calls a “slow-motion oil spill” into Padilla Bay next door to the refinery. She wants to know if toxins released in the oil-refining process are killing forage fish, including herring – an effect that moves up the food chain to threaten salmon and orcas.
“What’s in it for the people of Washington?” one unidentified speaker asked.
“We get all the impacts while the benefits are zero.”
Don’t try to tell that to Jess Brown. He was one of the few who spoke passionately in support of the oil train project.
“Shell has been a great employer,” he said. “They hire 700 people. The starting pay’s around $60,000. Many earn $100,000 or more. Please, while you’re studying this, consider the economic impact of not permitting the project.”
The final document will be a deciding factor in Skagit County’s approval or denial of the development permits Shell must have in order to get into the Bakken business.
For a huge global company not used to losing, the EIS process is one more item in a long season of discontent.
A few weeks after gaining federal permission to drill in the treacherous waters of the Chukchi Sea, Royal Dutch Shell announced in late summer that it was abandoning its Arctic drilling program altogether.
A series of misfortunes had moved industry observers to wonder what kind of black oil cloud was hovering over Shell’s assets.
* In 2012 its oil spill recovery barge designed for use in the Arctic failed to meet federal standards.
* An oil drilling rig slipped its anchor in Dutch Harbor and went out of control.
* Another ran aground in a storm while it was heading south for the winter, and came close to sinking.
* The company cancelled its 2013 and 2014 Arctic drilling seasons before they began.
* The company announced in July that a drop in the market value of oil would force cuts of 6,500 jobs.
* Stock analysts downgraded Shell stock to “worst performer” on earnings per share.
After all that came the announcement that the company’s Arctic venture was history, at a cost of some $8 billion in sunk investment, not including two billion the company had paid for its exploratory leases.
Top Shell executives acknowledged that a growing public outcry over the environmental risk of arctic drilling—as well as its wrong guesses about the costs and benefits of Arctic drilling—had driven its decision to pull out.
The company had asked that the federal government extend its Arctic exploratory leases for another year, giving Shell time to regroup and try again. Instead the government agencies announced last week that it would cancel the leases.
Shell at Anacortes had its own set of problems, peculiar to its location. It has depended for years on Alaska North Slope crude—regularly supplied to Anacortes by ocean tanker. But production of the ANS is diminishing. North Dakota Bakken crude is plentiful and cheap, and Shell counts on it to supplement and eventually replace the Alaskan oil. They need the new rail spur and unloading structure in order to bring it in.
Shell skated easily through Skagit County’s permit process until County Hearing Examiner Wick Dufford ruled that an Environmental Impact Statement is required.
“The risks that adding one more actor to this scene poses to the environment and to health and safety can only be appreciated after a cumulative analysis of the entire picture,” Dufford said.
“Catastrophes have occurred elsewhere. No one doubts that such a thing could occur here.”
Shell sued to overturn Dufford’s decision and block the county from imposing the EIS requirement—and lost in Skagit County Superior Court last spring.
Shell wants the EIS—if there has to be one—limited to the refinery site and acreage where the proposed rail yard would go. Project manager
Joe Luciano told the Skagit Valley Herald that Shell can’t control what happens “hundreds of miles down the railroad tracks.”
The most outspoken of Shell’s supporters at the EIS meetings was Brad Owens of Northwest Jobs Alliance, an industry-union coalition formed to promote a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point.
Owens told the EIS drafters that Shell and its 700 employees create more than 3,700 direct and indirect jobs through the so-called “ripple effect” that shows job numbers increasing with industrial payrolls.
In a letter, Owens accused critics of the Shell project of seeking to “deindustrialize” the economy.
“They picture an economy without industry,” he told the EIS team, “especially if it has anything to do with fossil fuels.”
Shell has complained that Skagit County is treating the company unfairly, having granted a permit for a nearly identical project to Tesoro—Shell’s neighbor and competitor, with no formal environmental impact study.
Opponents of the project acknowledge the point, but attribute it to the law of cumulative impact—the idea that if 100 Bakken oil trains per week present a certain level of risk, then six times as many creates more than six times the risk; the likelihood of disaster increases at an increasing rate.
“You have to see the cumulative effect,” Carl Ullman of Guemes Island told the Anacortes meeting. “If we study this one piece at a time, we risk dying of a thousand cuts while we look at each cut and say it’s not fatal.”
Photos by Paul K. Anderson
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