Cherry Point Amendments
Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Fossil fuel infrastructure presents critical threats to local public health, safety, and the environment. Whatcom County Council is responsible for protecting our community from the risks of these facilities, while recognizing the need for energy and valuable industrial jobs.
Our shores are home to herring that feed salmon that endangered Orcas depend upon. They are also the home of two large refineries that process almost half as much crude oil than the rest of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and anything north of San Francisco. Combined.
Fossil fuel facilities provide good jobs locally, and generate important tax revenues. Their presence here demonstrates that we are doing more than anywhere in the region to satisfy the nation’s demand for fuel. It also means we experience disproportionate health, safety and environmental risks, and generate disproportionate greenhouse gas pollution. Growth of these facilities, and new facilities that can be proposed, could increase the amounts of hazardous materials that move through our community.
Our risks are magnified by our location. Our beautiful shoreline provides a relatively cheap shipping route to Asia. A multinational corporation recently attempted to build the largest coal export facility in the United States here at Cherry Point. Treaty rights, public action and Whatcom County government blocked it. But that was just one project.
There are additional efforts to move fracked oil, tar sands fuels, and gas across our county, over our shores and through our waters. We’re not prepared.
We don’t have adequate zoning tools, nor adequate public process, for dealing with risks associated with new and expanded fossil facilities. Whatcom County Council has adopted a moratorium on new major projects at Cherry Point. This can only be temporary, and even under the moratorium, facilities can and are expanding.
Just a few years ago our old rules allowed both refineries to greatly expand their capacity to bring volatile Bakken crude oil in by rail. Under those rules these projects were determined to have no significant environmental impacts, and were issued building permits with little public process. There was no consideration of what a catastrophic rail accident would cost our local governments, and no concern for the potential of increased greenhouse gas emissions.
The potential local risks are massive. If you lived around here in June 1999, or talked with someone who did, you may know the deadly risks of pipelines. Exxon demonstrated the catastrophic environmental risks of shipping crude ten years earlier in Prince William Sound. BP demonstrated how deadly corporate practices caused unalterable economic and environmental destruction in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. In July 2013, a crude oil train exploded in Quebec, in a town the size of Blaine, killing 47 people. The town center was destroyed, and toxins from the fires left it uninhabitable. The train was carrying the same product that our refineries are moving through Bellingham and Ferndale.
The damage from these events is irreversible. At the end of the day, people at the local level suffer the consequences, and local governments are left holding the bag for much of the cleanup and recovery costs.
Whatcom County Council has been working to develop new zoning amendments for Cherry Point that recognize the local risks presented by new and expanded fossil fuel facilities, and that recognizes the need to mitigate risks if projects are permitted.
The new draft proposal focuses on local and global environmental impacts of new and expanded fossil fuel facilities in Whatcom County.
• It defines a more rigorous process for permitting new and expanded fossil fuel facilities in Whatcom County.
• It provides greater public participation in the process of permitting these facilities.
• It provides for increased transparency about the sources, types, and volumes of fuels coming into and leaving Whatcom County.
• It expects that local fossil fuel facilities are insured to cover the costs of catastrophic, worst case scenario disasters like the event in Quebec.
• It protects local public health by prohibiting bulk coal storage and coal shipping facilities.
• It protects the local environment by prohibiting new piers, docks or wharves in the Cherry Point UGA and Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.
• It recognizes the need to protect local herring stock, local salmon, and local Southern Resident Killer Whales.
• It requires conditional use permit for new or modified fossil fuel facilities; permits that build in a stronger public process and analysis that requires mitigation of increased greenhouse gas emissions, and recognition of treaty rights.
As a local government, we have very little ability to tell railroads or pipelines how to move fossil fuels, or to affect how oil tankers transport coal or crude or other fuel products. But when there are proposals to build facilities here, we have the ability to address the health, safety, and environmental risks these fossil fuel facilities present to our community. It’s our responsibility to do so.
Todd Donovan serves on Whatcom County Council.