Despite denial of a permit for the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal, two other pending permit actions threaten the health of the Salish Sea.
ONCE again, the public is reminded of the risk posed to our lands, waters and communities from oil being transported by the poorly regulated railroads. This time it was the explosive June 3 derailment of a mile-long Union Pacific train, carrying highly volatile Bakken crude oil along the Columbia River. These same trains run along the shore of more populated communities on the Salish Sea en route to refineries in Tacoma, Anacortes and Cherry Point, near Bellingham.
A month earlier, the public was celebrating the fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the Salish Sea a reprieve by denying the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal. We are indebted to the Lummi Nation for exercising its treaty rights that resulted in the protection of the Cherry Point Reach.
Cherry Point’s deep nearshore waters are a mixed blessing. They form a key migratory corridor for the state’s genetically distinct and critically depleted stock of herring and support the tribe’s ability to fish in its treaty-protected area. But these waters also enable deep-draft ships to dock close to shore.
The corps’ decision, ending a process begun in 1999, concluded the proposed terminal would restrict the tribe’s access to its fishery without even having to consider the interference or oil-spill risk associated with the 487 coal ships transiting to the terminal — some twice the size of oil tankers.
Stopping Gateway contributed significantly toward saving the Salish Sea from one incision in its death by a thousand cuts. However, like the Columbia River, it is still at risk from numerous impending permit decisions. Two are highlighted below.
First, dampening the celebration of the corps’ decision, on May 19, the National Energy Board of Canada recommended that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration allow Kinder Morgan to triple the capacity of its Trans Mountain oil pipeline connecting the enormous tar-sands oil reserves in Alberta with its marine terminal near Vancouver in Burnaby, B.C. This would increase the pipeline’s throughput from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 barrels a day — even larger than the defeated Keystone XL pipeline.
Trans Mountain expansion would, among other things, result in a sevenfold increase in oil tankers plying the waters between Washington and British Columbia from one a week to once daily. The route taken by these tankers, each laden with 25 million gallons of unrecoverable tar-sand-derived crude oil, overlaps the critical habitat of the endangered southern-resident orca community and endangered chinook salmon on which they depend.
In the next six months, the public must contact their representatives in Congress and ask them to urge Trudeau to stop such a dangerous proposal from imperiling the Salish Sea.
Second, in 2001, the corps issued a permit to oil-company giant BP — doubling the berthing capacity of its tanker dock at its Cherry Point refinery without first conducting an environmental-impact statement (EIS). Environmental plaintiffs lost our permit challenge in federal district court, and the dock was built.
But in 2005, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals directed the corps to prepare an EIS after ruling the corps’ permit violated the National Environmental Policy Act and, potentially, the so-called Magnuson amendment, named for its author, the late U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson of Washington state.
The Magnuson amendment prohibits federal agencies from issuing a permit that “will or may result in any increase in the volume of crude oil capable of being handled at” any facility east of Port Angeles, relative to its capability in 1977, unless for in-state consumption.
Remarkably, analysis of the BP dock proposal took nearly nine years and the draft EIS revealed that the increase in tanker traffic has already occurred — from 125 crude oil tankers a year before the 2001 expansion to 138 as of the report’s issuance (it concluded the new terminal could handle almost three times that amount).
However, the draft EIS failed to reach the inescapable conclusion that the permit violated the Magnuson amendment.
The public must demand that Congress direct the corps to finally complete the EIS and conclude the permit violates the Magnuson amendment. In order to be in compliance with Magnuson, the corps must limit vessel traffic to the original terminal’s maximum capacity.
The corps’ recent determination on the Gateway Pacific Terminal was well worth the wait, but we have waited far too long for the corps to complete its EIS on the BP dock. Until it does, the Salish Sea is not safe.
We do not need another reminder of the risks posed by oil transportation.