Citing the risks of oil spills and fires, a Skagit County examiner rules that Shell should conduct a full-blown environmental review of a proposal to handle tanker trains at the corporation’s Anacortes refinery.
Shell’s proposal to build a rail yard and spur line to handle 102-car oil trains at its Anacortes refinery has gotten more complicated.
Citing risks of oil spills, fires or explosions, a Skagit County hearing examiner ruled Friday that the Shell proposal requires a full-blown review under the state Environmental Policy Act.
The review would study the potential effects of a major oil-train accident, as well as examine resources for responding to a disaster.
The examiner’s ruling overturns an earlier county decision in August that concluded the Shell proposal could obtain a permit without the kind of review required by the state act.
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Elsewhere in North America, tanker cars carrying volatile crude from Bakken Shale fields in the Northern Plains have been involved in fiery accidents. The most recent was Feb. 16, when 19 oil-train cars caught fire in West Virginia.
In Washington, about 19 tanker trains per week in 2014 traveled through the state carrying oil bound for Puget Sound or California refineries. Proposals to develop new Washington unloading facilities could more than triple the number of weekly oil trains by 2020.
The Shell Puget Sound Refinery proposal calls for handling six oil trains each week delivering crude from the Bakken Shale fields in North Dakota.
In his 15-page ruling released Friday, Wick Dufford, the Skagit County examiner, wrote “it is clear that new hazards have been introduced by enormous volumes of crude being shipped by rail, the great length of crude-oil trains and by the high volatility or flammability of Bakken crude.”
Dufford wrote that “there is not convincing evidence that safety efforts are really effective,” and that the “weight of the evidence” shows local spill-response plans are not adequate.
Dufford concluded that Shell’s project was a major action that could significantly affect the quality of the environment, and so required full review under the state Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
In a statement released Monday, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said “we are disappointed with the examiner’s decision.”
“This project is critical for the refinery, and we strongly believe that the county’s environmental analysis was thorough and based on sound science and evidence,” Smith said.
The examiner was ruling on an appeal to the county’s initial decision that Shell could forgo the full-blown review.
The appeal was brought by environmental groups including Friends of the Earth, ForestEthics and Friends of the San Juans and the Washington Environmental Council.
“Ultimately, the county will have to make a decision about whether to allow this, and if they do what conditions to impose, “ said Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney.
“If the impacts are unacceptable, the authority is in SEPA to deny the project,” Hasselman said.
Four other refineries in Washington have facilities to unload the 100-car trains dedicated to carrying Bakken Shale crude, which in recent years have been a profitable alternative to Alaska North Slope crude or imported oil.
In a written statement, Shell’s Smith said that “In order to remain competitive and continue to supply customers in the Pacific Northwest with quality products, the refinery needs to have the same access as its competitors.”
The other Washington refineries were able to develop facilities for unloading North Dakota crude for tanker trains without going through full-blown state environmental reviews, according to Hasselman.
Hasselman said that environmental groups were not initially aware of the permit proposals for those refineries.
He added all of those permit requests were submitted before a July 2013 disaster in Quebec, which killed 47 people and drew attention to the risks of tanker trains carrying Bakken Shale oil.
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 23, 2015, was corrected Feb. 24, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 19 oil trains caught fire Feb. 16 in West Virginia. Actually, it was 19 oil-train cars.