An Imminent Threat:  The State Plans for CBR Disaster While Counties Punt

While the state spends hundreds of thousands of dollars defining risks of crude by rail, Skagit County finds no significant adverse impacts of a crude-by-rail proposal.

While the state spends hundreds of thousands of dollars defining risks of crude by rail, Skagit County finds no significant adverse impacts of a crude-by-rail proposal.

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An article in the July issue of Whatcom Watch, Washington’s Crude Awakening, describes the status of the four area crude-by-rail (CBR) proposals at the Skagit and Whatcom County refineries. Only one of the four, Shell Anacortes, has not yet been permitted.  In May, I published on NWC  a comment and argued the state must step in and assume lead agency status. That is particularly true now.

The 2014 state budget included one-time grants for the state to address Bakken crude-by-rail movement in the state. The grants were for:

  • $652,000 to develop geographic response plans (GRPs) for inland areas and hiring additional marine and rail experts.
  • $300,000 to produce a Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study that will analyze the risks to public health and safety, and the environmental impacts associated with the transport of oil in our state.

The governor tasked the Department of Ecology with conducting the study in a June 12 Directive  “to analyze the risks to public health and safety, and the environmental impacts associated with the transport of oil in Washington state.”

This study is, in essence, a limited  environmental impact study (EIS) of risks associated with shipping Bakken crude by rail and vessel. The study’s scope specifically includes the intersection of rail and marine facilities including the Puget Sound refineries, including Shell Anacortes.

Yet, Skagit County Planning and Development Services (SCPDS) just issued its second “modified” Mitigated Determination of Nonsignificance (MDNS), concluding there were no significant adverse impacts that could not be addressed with conditions on the permit.

There are numerous problems with the MDNS:

  • It assumes state and federal permits will address activities and impacts without an analysis; and
  • Its conditions on rail and vessel traffic are almost all voluntary, and there are no monitoring or enforcement provisions associated with any conditions.

The biggest issue is that the modified MDNS does not specify a number of trains. Theoretically, at face value, the MDNS could grant Shell permission to receive its entire refining capacity by rail.

Shell’s original permit application, in Sec. 6a stated, “The facility is being designed to receive a maximum of six unit trains per week, for a total of approximately 612 incoming fully loaded oil cars and 612 outgoing empty tank cars on a weekly basis. “ However, both the original MDNS and the modified MDNS are silent as to the number of trains.

SCPDS apparently is operating under the assumption that they have no juris diction over rail traffic and, therefore, can neither limit the number of trains received by the refineries, nor even study the impacts of that rail activity.

I spoke with  Brandon Black, the SCPDS planner responsible for the Tesoro Anacortes SEPA threshold determination which resulted in an MDNS, by phone on Friday, August 22. That MDNS stated, in the Project Description:

The project is intended to provide the additional flexibility of receiving crude oil by rail and will be designed to accommodate one loaded 100 car unit train every other day.

According to Black, this language does not make the number of trains a condition of that MDNS nor the permit because his agency does not have jurisdiction over the rails. When asked if he had even considered rail risks beyond the proponent’s site during the threshold determination, he stated that his agency had not because of state and federal pre-emption.

BNSF has been reporting CBR traffic to the state since June 6 of this year in accordance with a directive from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). According to those reports, there have consistently been 12 crude unit trains traveling to Skagit County, and 6 to Whatcom County. Since only BP is receiving crude by rail now in Whatcom County (Phillips 66 will not complete construction of new rail infrastructure until the end of the year), that means Tesoro Anacortes is receiving 6 trains per week, or nearly double the number of trains they stated in their permit application their CBR infrastructure was “designed to accommodate.”

USDOT issued the Directive after identifying Bakken crude by rail as “an imminent hazard.” The state is spending nearly $1 million not to determinine if there is a risk, but to measure the risks, and determine what the state must do to mitigate the risks.

No one is acting as though permits for CBR proposals could be conditioned on real mitigations, such as even placing a limit on the number of trains the refineries may receive. In a phone conversation today, Leah Forbes, SCPDS planner responsible for the Shell SEPA review, stated that the public should refer to other project documents online. But the April 22, 2014, Staff SEPA Findings state merely that “crude brought in by rail would replace some supply currently brought in by ship.” While it does describe numbers of trains and unit cars in the permit application, it states that “Shell PSR anticipates that it would receive approximately” this number of trains (emphasis added).

The number of trains matters. While Shell provided a detailed vehicle traffic analysis, they did not provide a rail or vessel traffic analysis.

CBR is already overwhelming existing rail infrastructure in Washington and forcing other commodities off the rails, so there is an important economic state interest involved when other commodities cannot reach our freight and grain terminals.

What no one is talking about is making degasification of the crude before shipment a condition of the permits.

It is untenable that the state, while acknowledging and measuring the recognized risks, turns a blind eye as counties issue determinations of nonsignificance (DNS), finding there are no significant adverse impacts associated with Bakken crude-by-rail proposals, and refusing to talk in terms of concrete numbers of trains.

Ecology is to submit an interim report to the Governor and the legislature by December 1, 2014, on the 2014 Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study, and a final report by March 1, 2015. They expect to complete a draft interim report in September, and hold public meetings in October at which the public may comment.

But long before then, we have until the 28th to demand that the state step in and assume lead status in Skagit County. Someone has got to start applying SEPA to refineries’ crude by rail proposals. Neither SEPA nor NEPA say that they apply until a proposal gets really really big and expensive. Heck, look at the GPT EIS for an example of what should be happening with CBR proposals.

What you can do:

  • For all of the below, reference Skagit County Planning and Development Services’ (PDS) Modified Mitigated Determination of Nonsignificance (MDNS) for Shell Puget Sound Refinery’s Shoreline Substantial Development/Variance Permit PL13-0468
  • Comment to Skagit County PDS on the Shell crude by rail proposal by August 28:
    • Online; or
    • By mail, directed to Leah Forbes, Senior Planner, 1800 Continental Place, Mount Vernon, WA 98273.
  • Immediately contact the offices of the governor and the Department of Ecology asking the state to intervene as lead agency in accordance with WAC 197-11-340(2)(e), and conduct an Environmental Impact Statement that includes an analysis of the risks and impacts associated with the cumulative rail and vessel traffic associated with this proposal. That analysis must focus on impacts that cannot be fully mitigated, measuring associated costs to state and local governments in the event of a significant incident, and consider the No Action Alternative.
  • Comment now, in writing, on the 2014 Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study online and ask the governor to issue a moratorium on state permits for all crude-by-rail proposals pending the results of the 2014 Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study.
  • Comment in person on the draft interim report on the 2014 Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study at one of the public meetings on 10/21 and 10/23, in Lacey and Spokane. Details will follow, including information about buses, if available.

About Terry Wechsler

Citizen Journalist • Member since May 19, 2013

Terry came to our county from New York, seeking the fabled Pacific Northwest clean environment and was shocked at the rampant abuses she found here. Terry wrote 15 articles from 2013 to 2015 [...]

Comments by Readers

Terry Wechsler

Aug 28, 2014

And, here it is. Shell states in their permit app that Bakken crude would offset declining crude previously received by vessel, particularly due to decreasing Alaskan supply. And, yet, drilling is ramping up in Alaska.

On a recent tour of the Shell facility, Skagit County residents heard that Shell is sending crude by barge to BP. So it is already acting as a crude terminal. The condition on the MDNS that refining capacity not increase is not the last word in a Magnuson analysis.

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