The next fight over the future of oil export facilities could be in deciphering the meanings of a recent Shorelines Hearings Board opinion as to whether a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement is required.
An Environmental Impact Statement is the top-tier environmental analysis required for development projects in the state. For instance, before a giant casting basin could be dug into the earth in Aberdeen for the state Department of Transportation to build and ship pontoons out to the Harbor, an Environmental Impact Statement had to be done to take into account the economic, cultural and transportation impacts as well as the environmental consequences of the project. Such studies require consultants, intense study — and a lot of money.
The city of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology has never required such intense scrutiny of oil export facilities proposed by Westway Terminals and Imperium Renewables in Hoquiam. Instead, the agencies issued permits for the facilities utilized the permitting process under the State Environmental Policy Act and issued a “mitigated determination of non-significance,” meaning that the projects could go forward so long as a set of conditions were met.
Earlier this month, the state Shorelines Hearings Board canceled the permits, said the conditions proposed by the city and state weren’t good enough and sent it back to the city and state Department of Ecology for a re-do. Board members had said the remand would be coming for months, but made it formal in an opinion issued Nov. 12.
The appeal was filed by the Quinault Indian Nation, Friends of Grays Harbor, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Grays Harbor Audubon and Citizens for a Clean Harbor.
The opinion criticizes the city and state for relying exclusively on opinions from the Port, the rail company and the applicants that there would be no probable significant impacts and for not requiring studies looking at the rail traffic and the marine traffic until after the projects are practically done.
The opinion notes that the “studies are fundamental and vital to the determination of whether the rail and vessel increases that will result from these two projects, individually and cumulatively, will create significant adverse impacts.”
The opinion adds, “To wait until after … to obtain information that identified whether potential impacts from vessel and train increases will be significant and whether mitigation is necessary does not comply with the mandate of SEPA to ‘provide consideration of environmental factors at the earliest possible stage to allow decisions to be based on complete disclosure of environmental consequences.’”
“The board is left with a firm and deep conviction that the co-leads clearly erred in concluding that there would not be probable significant impacts to the environment from the increases in rail and vessel traffic,” the opinion states.
The board’s decision also found “troubling questions of the adequacy of the analysis done regarding the potential for individual and cumulative impacts from oil spills, seismic events, greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts to cultural resources.” All of those issues are typically resolved through an Environmental Impact Statement and its assorted studies.
“The Board did not explicitly order an Environmental Impact Statement,” acknowledged Kristen Boyles, an attorney for the Quinaults. “Reading the entire opinion, with issues of cumulative impacts, need for rail and vessel traffic analyses, and the risk and issues the Board found ‘troubling’ even though it didn’t rule on them. I see no way for Ecology and Hoquiam to validly avoid a full EIS going forward.”
Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay said that the applicants have no plans to move forward with the more intense Environmental Impact Statement.
“If that’s what the board would have wanted, then that’s what they would have required,” Shay said.” They would have said that.”
Shay says the city still isn’t requiring the more thorough environmental review because “it’s not clearcut on the potential adverse impacts.”
He notes that when Westway and Imperium were first permitted at the Port of Grays Harbor, neither required an Environmental Impact Statement. No one appealed those decisions. In fact, because Imperium specializes in biodiesel, many in the environmental community were celebrating them. At this point, Shay said, the city is merely considering their operations as expansions. Under the proposed projects, those facilities would be expanded to add 33.6 million gallons of crude oil storage at Westway and 30.2 million gallons of crude oil storage at Imperium.
If they didn’t need the more thorough review the first time, why would they need it now? Shay points out.
He adds that the pontoon project, which did need an Environmental Impact Statement, cut into the riverbank on the Chehalis River.
“That made sense for an EIS because anytime you work on a water body like that, it’s environmentally significant,” Shay said. “This is different.”
Really, what the environmental groups had been hoping was for Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology to issue a moratorium on all crude-by-rail projects until a full cumulative environmental and economic review could be done. The state Department of Ecology is reviewing the cumulative impacts of coal export facilities in the state. However, the state isn’t doing the same thing for potential oil export facilities.
A Seattle environmental research group issued a report over the summer, noting there are 11 separate crude oil export proposals in Oregon and Washington.
The Columbian in Vancouver has reported on healthy opposition to a potential crude oil export terminal in Vancouver, where hundreds of people have attended rallies in opposition. Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day, The Columbian reports.
The oil would be transported to Clark County by train, then shipped to U.S. refineries. If built, the $100 million facility would be the biggest such operation in the Northwest. Port of Vancouver commissioners have already approved a lease for the Vancouver oil terminal.
Here on the Harbor, besides Westway and Imperium, a third company called U.S. Development Group is also considering exporting crude oil at a terminal in Hoquiam. U.S. Development has not yet started its permitting process. However, if all three proposals moved forward, it could bring as much as 2.4 billion gallons of crude oil by train through Grays Harbor.
The Shorelines Hearings Board ruled that Hoquiam had to take into account the potential U.S. Development proposal in their plans. However, two members of the board dissented on that ruling and said that they needed more information on it.