A Skagit County hearing examiner made the right call in ordering an environmental-impact statement on Shell’s plan to modify its Anacortes oil refinery to receive crude by rail.
GIVEN the risks to public safety, a Skagit County hearing examiner made the right call last month in ordering the county to prepare a full-blown environmental-impact statement (EIS) on Shell’s plan to modify its Anacortes oil refinery to receive crude by rail.
State law requires impact statements for projects that could “significantly” affect environmental quality. Shell’s proposal to build a rail spur to bring six 102-car trains filled with volatile North Dakota crude to the refinery each week easily surpasses that standard.
County planners had decided an impact statement was not needed, provided Shell met certain conditions. But Hearing Examiner Wick Dufford, ruling on an appeal filed by environmental groups, said that was clearly a mistake.
In particular, he wrote, an EIS is needed to evaluate risks and potential consequences of spills, fires or explosions — not just on the spur or at the refinery, but in transit to them.
Those risks and consequences need to be considered in a regional context, Dufford added — three other north Puget Sound refineries already get crude by rail.
“Catastrophes have occurred elsewhere,” he wrote. “No one doubts that such a thing could occur here.”
The sort of comprehensive analysis Dufford called for is overdue in Northwest Washington. Such studies weren’t required for three other refineries’ rail projects.
The decisions on those proposals came before railroads began shipping crude in significant volumes.
They also predated the onslaught of derailments, spills and explosions — beginning with the 2013 Quebec disaster that killed 47 people — that have focused attention on oil-train safety.
Not surprisingly, oil-by-rail projects are being subjected to greater scrutiny. Environmental-impact statements are in the works for proposed terminals in Grays Harbor and Vancouver, Wash. What Dufford is asking of Skagit County and Shell is hardly unprecedented.
While preparing an EIS will delay Shell’s plan, it’s not a death knell. Skagit County officials almost certainly will consider not only its environmental but also its economic consequences.
The Shell refinery is one of the county’s largest employers. The Alaska North Slope crude it has relied upon for decades is being depleted fast.
But as decision makers consider the project, they need the best information on the odds of a rail disaster and what its likely consequences would be.
An environmental-impact statement , done right, should provide them with that.