The 1968 discovery of oil in Alaska activated a dream among oil barons to turn Washington state into a “supertanker” port for transporting oil to the Midwest. For decades BP (formerly ARCO) pushed to expand its Cherry Point refinery capacity to berth more tankers and process more crude oil, creating demand for more massive oil tankers that would traverse through the rich but vulnerable waters of the Salish Sea.  

This month marked the 45th anniversary of the late U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson’s “little amendment” to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The 1977 amendment prohibits federal agencies from granting permits to refineries east of Port Angeles that could result in an increase of crude oil traffic other than that for consumption in Washington.  

Rather than waiting for a spill to wreak havoc on our marine environment and all those dependent on it, Magnuson took several proactive efforts to reduce oil spill risk that we’re still trying to uphold. 

The BP refinery, built in 1971, was part of a massive project encompassing the construction of the Northern Tier pipeline over the Cascades and connecting the state’s largest refinery to Midwest petroleum markets. The refinery was constructed near Bellingham, where supertankers could dock and access the existing Trans Mountain pipeline spur, linking the four North Sound refineries to the heavy crude from the Alberta oil sands.   

The location of BP’s refinery meant that once oil from Alaska came online, supertankers would have to navigate through the San Juan Islands. The narrow straits and swift currents would leave little time for course correction before a disabled tanker would ground — potentially spilling millions of gallons of oil and engulfing hundreds of miles of shoreline. In response to public outcry over the increased risk, Trans Mountain proposed a terminal off Port Angeles, connecting to the North Sound refineries via underwater pipeline. That project was stopped by a grassroots coalition led by No Oil Port! and included Friends of the Earth. Trans Mountain then focused its efforts on exporting Alberta crude from its terminal in Burnaby, B.C. — which, if expanded, would increase tanker traffic sevenfold in the Salish Sea.   

As would be expected by one of the world’s largest oil corporations, BP has expanded its oil transport through these cherished waters, including more than doubling its refining capacity, building rail terminals and adding a new berth to its existing tanker terminal. However, the Corps failed to enforce the Magnuson amendment or require BP to complete an EIS before issuing a permit to expand its terminal in 1996. Despite repeated opposition and litigation, the new dock was built in 2001 without an EIS or a Magnuson determination.  

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Concerned by the Corps’ failure to respond to court orders and ongoing risks of a catastrophic oil tanker spill, Friends of the San Juans, Evergreen Islands and Friends of the Earth sued the Army Corps of Engineers last year for its delay issuing a final EIS.  

As a result of the challenge and settlement, the Corps published the FEIS this August — 17 years after the dock was built — and yet we still aren’t confident the Corps will uphold Magnuson and restrict crude oil tankers calling on BP’s expanded terminal. 

While our settlement calls for the Corps to amend BP’s permit to comply with Magnuson, the final determination can only be made if the Corps, BP and tribal governments agree to tanker limits in the coming weeks.  

The effort to enforce Magnuson has been ongoing for decades and will affect generations to come. The Corps must clearly enforce Magnuson to uphold his legacy and finally protect our waterways as intended.