“Friends and Neighbors”?

A closer look at Whatcom County’s industrial “stewards of the environment.”

A closer look at Whatcom County’s industrial “stewards of the environment.”


Updated August 30, 2014, to add spill information from the Department of Ecology's Spill Incidents site.

In their November 29, 2012, comment on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT), the Northern Whatcom County Small City Caucus (mayors of Blaine, Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack, and Sumas) explained why they support GPT:

“The existing Cherry Point industries have been increasingly good neighbors and corporate citizens over time, but their future viability cannot be assumed or taken for granted. The permitting agencies should recognize the importance  of new and diversified job growth within the Cherry Point heavy industrial area as essential to a healthy and sustainable regional economy.”

My first article for NWC noted there has never been an environmental assessment to determine how “appropriate” industrial activity at Cherry Point actually is. As we await the EIS for GPT, it is time to assess our Whatcom County industrial “good neighbors and corporate citizens” with a more critical eye, and consider how they operate and have in the past, since that informs how we can expect them and their corporate brethren in Whatcom County to behave in the future.

This information is incomplete. Data about toxic sites awaiting cleanup is derived from the Washington Dep’t of Ecology’s Hazardous Sites List. Ecology ranks sites 1 to 5, with those with a 1 ranking being the worst sites. For perspective, the GP waterfront site has a rank of 2.

Alcoa Intalco Works:

  • Largest stationary source of carbon monoxide in the area, emitting as much CO as all cars in the county, according to the NW Clean Air Agency. Also significant emitter of SO2, NO2, PM10, and PM2.5. (Note: technology could reduce.)
  • Largest single electricity consumer in the Northwest. 
  • Leading regional source of workplace asbestos exposure according to the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.


  • July 24, 2014, derailment of Bakken crude train under Magnolia bridge in Seattle. No crude released.
  • Feb. 23, 2012, incident resulted in a spill of nearly 3000 gallons of diesel at Seattle railyard, some of which entered public sewer system and traveled to water treatment facility.
  • Nov. 7, 2011, derailment at Pasco rail hump yard involved 77 cars including a 30,000 gal. tanker leaking denatured alcohol.
  • Fined $3000 for spilling 30 gallons of sodium hydroxide on Chambers Bay beach after 14 cars derailed  Feb. 26, 2011, south of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in University Place, WA. "Ecology noted a lack of coordination with local responders that resulted in safety challenges during the initial stages of the response."
  • Two toxic sites in the county (Rank 4 in Acme; rank 5 in Bellingham) awaiting cleanup. 
  • As of February 2014, 17 total hazardous sites state-wide, of which 3 are ranked 1 (in Auburn, Shelton, and Kelso).
  • Rail industry as a whole refuses to voluntarily monitor worker health and medications taken to routinely assess operator impairment.

BP Cherry Point:

  • 1995-2005, BP US led nation in refinery deaths, with 10 times Exxon’s.
  • 2010:  BP Cherry Point cited for 13 “serious safety violations,” fined $69,200. No appeal.
  • 2012:  Refinery fire; six violations cited by WA Dep’t Labor & Industries (L&I), including one willful violation of workplace safety and health rules, $81,500 fine. BP is appealing.
  • Whatcom County PDS No. SEP2012-00059; mitigated determination of nonsignificance (MDNS) dated October 18, 2012, and permit granted for a rail logistics project to receive up to one train per day of crude from the North Dakota Bakken shale beds. Request for reconsideration based on new information of extreme hazards associated with crude by rail denied. Currently does not report how many trains it actually receives.

Chevron LPG, Ferndale:

  • Petrogas Energy Corp. of Calgary announced acquisition of the facility, which stores and distributes bulk shipments of propane, butane and iso-butane (collectively "LPG"), on March 4, 2014. The facility almost exclusively exports to foreign markets, according to industry analyst RBN Energy.
  • Petrogas has not announced if it plans to expand storage capacity (currently 750 MBbl) or rail infrastructure (2 rail sidings), and officials decline to be interviewed.  The facility previously averaged 4-5000 bpd (2-3 vessels/annum), but  the announcement noted the facility’s 30,000 bpd capacity.
  • Transport is dangerous. The most recent FRA advisory about rail transport was issued in 2012; tankers require 500-foot “security zones,” or buffers between them and other vessels. The facility shares Alcoa’s pier.
  • Derailments can result in explosions and fires, posing particular problems when LPG cars are combined with crude for rail shipment as occurs now. 

Phillips 66 (ConocoPhillips) Ferndale Refinery:

  • Persists in using hydrofluoric acid, an acute poison, to boost octane rates in spite of the extreme danger associated with a spill and availability of safer alternative chemicals. Refuses to disclose how this hazardous material is transported to the refinery (vessel, rail, or truck), in spite of the fact that “it’s some of the worst stuff in the spill-response world,” according to Mark MacIntyre, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle.
  • Fined $540,000 for the Oct. 13, 2004, Polar Texas oil tanker spill of 7200 gallons of crude oil near Vaschon Island, including a penalty for failure to report. U.S. and state agencies spent $2.23 million to clean up 59 tons of oily debris and 6842 gallons of oily water from the Tacoma Narrows to Eagle Harbor.
  • 2005-11, fined over $200,000 for emission violations by Northwest Clean Air Administration.
  • Fined $6,300 by L&I for 2010 fire caused by improper maintenance.
  • Oct. 27, 2010, spilled 10,500 gallons of diesel fuel due to underground pipeline leak. Ecology issued an administrative order to the company for failure to report, properly train staff in response procedures, etc.
  • Whatcom County PDS No. SEP2013-00005; MDNS dated April 29, 2013, and permit granted for a rail logistics project to receive up to one train every other day of crude from the North Dakota Bakken shale beds.  Request for reconsideration based on new information of extreme hazards associated with crude by rail denied. Rail infrastructure not yet complete; has not agreed to report how many trains will be received once in operation.

TreOil Industries Limited:

  • Ranked equivalent to GP waterfront on WA Dep’t of Ecology’s list of hazardous sites in Whatcom County awaiting cleanup.
  • Contaminants are leaching into groundwater and later discharged into Puget Sound according to WA Dep’t of Natural Resources’ Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Plan

Other:  Ecology lists 27 hazardous sites awaiting cleanup in Whatcom County:

  • Rank 1:  Chris V8 in Custer;
  • Rank 2: 5 sites including GP Bellingham waterfront;
  • Rank 3:  9 sites;
  • Rank 4: 3 sites; and
  • Rank 5: 9 sites.

The Small City Mayors’ assertion that growth and diversification within the Cherry Point industrial area are essential to a healthy and sustainable economy is conclusory and requires adequate study of risks posed. Some of those risks were described by the Seattle Times in its front page Easter 2014 article addressing state-wide implications of combined rail and vessel impacts of the now over 20 fossil fuel transportation proposals in the region.

At the county level, it is time to address the cumulative impacts of industrial activity at Cherry Point and elsewhere, and we have 27 reasons to demand such an analysis before any permitting decisions are made that would add to or increase industrial activity. With rumors swirling of possible fracking operations in the Bellingham Basin, it is time to stop doing the easy thing – talking about jobs – and address how we sustainably move into a future that leaves our kids not merely with jobs to go to, but water to drink, fish to eat….

About Terry Wechsler

Citizen Journalist • Member since May 19, 2013

Comments by Readers

Wendy Harris

Apr 22, 2014

Excellent work, Terry.  Do you know when Cherry Point was zoned heavy industrial, because ever since I have been here everyone has treated this an immutable fact.  I am wondering if it was subject to SEPA legally, or at least included in the county’s last EIS for its GMA comp. plan requirements.  And do we have any evidence or information linking the Cherry Point industries to human health problems?  We have very high rates of cancer, and autoimmune disease, and I know from reviewing EPA websites about a year ago, our air quality is not that great, I believe primarily from these industries.

At this point, I am beginning to wonder if there are any safe places left to live in the County or COB, and if not, whether any place else is any better at this point.


Terry Wechsler

Apr 22, 2014

At some point we should dig down in to the entire regulatory timeline. My general understanding is that the first refinery was permitted in the 50s, but it wasn’t zoned HII until some time after that (in the 70s?) because of its unique characteristics which made it an ideal site for creation of high wage jobs. I got the vague sense that was happening as the Coastal Zone Management Act, Shoreline Management Act, and NEPA and SEPA were coming down the pipeline, but I don’t know with certainty. I was lazy and re-read the CP Aquatic Reserve Management Plan assuming it would reference any EIS, which it did not, though it does seem to comprehensively survey existing studies. I spoke to the director of the Aquatic Reserve Division at DNR to confirm the state had not conducted an EIS for the ARMP. I can also re-read the GPT 1997 FEIS to see if it references any other studies (which it should have if any existed). It’s been a while since I’ve been in that doc, but I have no recollection of any reference, and that should have jumped out if it was there.

I plan to drill down into this issue because the assumptions in the Comp Plan for the Cherry Point UGA may be without any foundation. Protect Whatcom submitted a comment for the EIS for the Comp Plan revisions, specifically challenging the employment projections, arguing that there is no basis to haggle over which higher projection is more appropriate, absent a study of impacts of industrial activity there now, much less those impacts associated with the expanded industrial activity necessary to support the 600-800+ projected additional jobs. Of course, that entire section of the proposed comp plan revisions is a mess, based on assumptions about PIT’s plans that are now outdated. The high employment projections, e.g., assume that there would be industrial development on PIT’s land beyond the footprint of the terminal when the reality is PIT’s permit application describes using the remaining land in its natural state as a wind buffer. The trees are an integral part of their “state-of-the-art” dust suppression system.

In short, if there is any real planning occurring around industrial activity in this county, particularly at CP, I sure can’t find it.


Terry Wechsler

Jun 25, 2014

The Northwest Jobs Alliance has responded and, apparently, their answer is to declare war on the environment:

June 25, 2014

Who Must Win Jobs v. Environment Debate in Whatcom County?

A Letter to Our Fellow Citizens,

From John Huntley (Mills Electric) and Brad Owens (NW Washington Building & Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO); Co-Chairs of the Northwest Jobs Alliance

Hardly a day passes when there isn’t a news item describing the need for more and better jobs and a better environment, but the context too often seems to pit one against the other as if in a battle between good and evil.  This is a false proposition, because a good quality of life requires both.

To promote reasoned, fact-based discussion of economic and job development prospects in Whatcom County, a few years ago business and labor leaders jointly formed the Northwest Jobs Alliance.
Our mission:
Promote the growth of family-wage jobs in the context of sound environmental practice

In other words, we seek “Balanced Community Solutions.”

Also in the past few years, there have been very strident and aggressive advocates of de-industrializing our economy, even threatening the high-wage jobs at the existing Cherry Point industries (which include two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter), to say nothing of the prospect of new industrial job growth.)

Here is an example of what these community activists are saying:

“...it is time to assess our Whatcom County industrial ‘good neighbors and corporate citizens’ with a more critical eye…”

“What should be occurring is a joint effort by the federal, state, and local governments, in consultation with the tribes, to consider whether any industrial activity at Cherry Point is appropriate or compatible with protecting that area.”
Activist Lawyer Terry Wechsler, April 21 and 6, 2014 on NWCitizen.com

The livelihoods of thousands of families are at stake as well as future generations to come.  Without the Cherry Point industrial job base, which was the result of decades of careful thought and planning, our community’s economy and family income levels would be significantly weakened.  And our schools and local cities would suffer from a decimated tax base and diminished services, along with an increased shift of the tax burden to homeowners.  (Industry now carries much of the tax load.)

We reject the thinking that we can’t have both economic prosperity and environmental quality. We must have both.

If you share our belief in striving for balance and would like to support Cherry Point jobs as part of the Northwest Jobs Alliance, please send your name and contact information to:



Terry Wechsler

Aug 28, 2014

Updates:  BP’s latest refinery explosion, this one in Indiana:  http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/08/28/refinery-operations-bp-whiting-idINL1N0QY07U20140828 (hat tip to John Bremer).

The Bellingham Herald agreed to publish as an op ed NW Jobs Alliance’s rants (see above) about this article and another I wrote on the need for a real EIS to study the efficacy of industrial activity at Cherry Point:  http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/07/28/3765029/economic-prosperity-quality-of.html?sp=/99/122/291/

With some arm twisting, I was allowed to respond:  http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/08/06/3786001/whatcom-county-must-weight-costs.html?sp=/99/122/291/.

Big story about BNSF’s shenanigans yet to come.

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