WA state fails to consider orcas in Skagit refinery petrochemical project

October 2, 2018

Shoreline Hearings Board upholds permits for Anacortes Refinery expansion; environmental organizations call decision flawed for failing to consider vessel traffic impact on Southern Residents

SKAGIT COUNTY, WA — On Friday September 28, the Washington State Shoreline Hearings Board dismissed arguments made by a coalition of environmental organizations and more than 7,500 residents, upholding a key permit for the Marathon Oil’s (formerly Andeavor and previously known as Tesoro) Anacortes Refinery to begin manufacturing and exporting xylenes — petrochemicals used in plastics production — through the Salish Sea. 

The organizations that brought the challenge believe that the decision is flawed, because the Shoreline Hearings Board never considered the merits of the case — including concerns about Skagit County’s failure to address vessel traffic impacts to the Salish Sea and the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. The organizations are weighing their legal options and considering their next steps. 

Read more in a Crosscut op-ed: Canada is protecting orcas from oil spills. Why aren’t we? (October 2, 2018)

The expansion project would allow the Anacortes Refinery to produce and ship up to 15,000 barrels per day of mixed xylenes for export to predominantly Asian markets. The project would result in the addition of approximately 60 vessel trips per year through the Salish Sea. 

Despite significant concerns raised during the public comment period about the project’s vessel traffic impacts on the endangered Southern Resident orcas, the increased risk of a toxic spill, and significant increases in pollution that causes climate change, the Shoreline Hearings Board decided not to consider whether the Environmental Impact Statement had adequately considered all of the project’s impacts. The board also decided not to require a more rigorous Shoreline Conditional Use Permit for the project.

The organizations highlighted concerns that local governments like Skagit County are inadequately prepared to regulate never-before-seen refinery projects like Marathon Oil’s proposal to begin manufacturing and exporting a new petrochemical product — a completely new use of the refinery and pier, and a potentially new business model for refineries operating in the Salish Sea bioregion.

Documents uncovered during the appeal process indicate that Marathon relied upon a forestry biologist based in Portland, OR to assess project impacts to the endangered Southern Resident orcas.

Also uncovered during the appeal were documents indicating that the Department of Ecology told Skagit County that Marathon had incorrectly calculated its project’s carbon pollution impacts in the Environmental Impact Statement, allowing Marathon to ignore direct emissions equivalent to adding more than 70,000 cars to the road each year. Paying for this pollution could cost the refinery $5,000,000 year or more — but in dismissing the appeal, the Shoreline Hearings Board failed to require Skagit County to correct the mistake.

The environmental organizations involved in the appeal include Stand.earth, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Friends of the San Juans, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, and Evergreen Islands. The groups are represented by Crag Law Center and have options to petition the Shoreline Hearings Board to reconsider the decision, or appeal.

Following the announcement, the groups issued the following statements:

On the future of petrochemical projects in the Salish Sea bioregion:

“This case highlights how unprepared local governments like Skagit County are in properly regulating never-before-seen refinery projects like Marathon Oil’s proposal to begin manufacturing and exporting petrochemicals through the Salish Sea. Marathon Oil has admitted publicly that as our state continues to turn toward clean energy, the refinery plans to produce more and more petrochemicals — to be turned into products that have nothing to do with local energy and everything to do with global markets already flooded with disposable plastics.” -Alex Ramel, Field Director with Stand.earth

“This project would cause as much climate pollution as adding 70,000 cars to the road each year. Skagit County misunderstood how to apply the state’s Clean Air Rules, and when notified of the error in public comment by the Department of Ecology and environmental organizations, the county failed to correct the mistake. Today’s decision by the Shoreline Hearings Board perpetuates the failure of government to hold polluters accountable, fails to follow the law of Washington state, and fails to protect our climate and our communities.”  -Stephanie Hillman, Northwest Campaign Representative, Sierra Club

On impacts to Southern Resident orcas:

“This fragmented permitting process will result in increased vessel traffic impacts and oil spill risks to the critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. We learned during the appeal process that Marathon relied on a forestry biologist for its analysis of impacts — who misrepresented data in determining that the project’s vessel traffic would not harm this endangered species. We now ask Governor Inslee’s recently appointed Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force to recommend that the state require project applications that would include vessel traffic to address vessel traffic impacts to Southern Resident Killer Whales.” -Stephanie Buffum, Executive Director with Friends of the San Juans

“The Salish Sea is irreplaceable. The Environmental Impact Statement for Marathon’s petrochemical project was deeply flawed, failing to account for the acoustic impacts on Southern Resident orcas and the real risk of an actual worst case spill. It’s important that these types of analysis are done properly. We are extremely disappointed at the Shoreline Hearings Board’s decision to ignore the errors addressed in our appeal.”  -Marcie Keever, Oceans & Vessels Program Director, Friends of the Earth

“The manufacture and export of xylenes poses a new and dangerous threat to the Puget Sound region. This project has not received the appropriate scrutiny from Shorelines Hearings Board in light of the numerous and severe environmental impacts it poses. The Board is responsible for ensuring that development of our shorelines is done in a manner that will ‘promote and enhance the public interest,’ including ‘protecting against adverse effects to the public health, the land and its vegetation and wildlife, and the waters of the state and their aquatic life’ — consistent with the Shorelines Management Act. We are surprised and dismayed by the flawed rationale given for dismissal, demonstrating the Board’s failure to accurately weigh the risks.” -Alyssa Barton, Policy Analyst and Executive Coordinator, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance

On new uses of the refinery and the need for a Conditional Use Permit:

“This project has a high potential to cause irreparable environmental harm to our shared waters by setting into motion a major petrochemical superhighway across the Salish Sea. Government and industry should be held to the highest standards to protect this irreplaceable gift. But today, our government failed to properly regulate plans to transform Marathon’s existing wharf into a petrochemical export terminal, a new use of the refinery that has never before been considered.” -Tom Glade, President of Evergreen Islands

“Exporting petrochemicals is a completely new use of the refinery, not just an expansion of how it currently operates. When a refinery wants to substantially change how it operates, and those changes would impact its existing wharf and shoreline, a more rigorous Conditional Use Permit should be required. This is especially true for a project that is adjacent to the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve and the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve — both shorelines designated as having statewide significance.” -Eddy Ury, Clean Energy Program Manager, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities


Summer 2015: Tesoro proposed the project and began filing permit applications.

March 2016: Skagit County required a full EIS (environmental impact statement).

March- April 2017: Skagit County released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, more than 7,500 comments were submitted. The overwhelming majority of them urged the County to address concerns over worker safety standards, petrochemical spills in the Salish Sea, risks to endangered orcas, increasing crude oil train traffic, and use of the new facility for crude oil export. Commenters also asked the county to separately review the xylene export and clean products upgrade components of the project, while properly accounting for greenhouse gas pollution.

July 2017: Just two months after the end of the comment period, the County released a Final Environmental Impact Statement which was substantially unchanged from the draft EIS.

November 2017: Skagit County Hearing Examiner held a public comment period and public hearing on the Shoreline Substantial Development Permit. More than 100 people attend, with 60 of the 65 presenters speaking against the permit. 

December 2017: The Skagit County Hearing Examiner issued the permit. Six organizations, with representation by Crag Law Center, appealed the decision to the Skagit County Board of Commissioners. Concerns raised by the appellant group focus on the need for a Conditional Use Permit and the inadequacy of the EIS’s analysis of spill risk, marine impacts, including the endangered Southern Resident orcas and greenhouse gas analysis. 

February 27, 2018: A hearing was held in front of the Board of Commissioners with arguments made by both sides. More than 100 members of the public attended the hearing most wearing red to signify opposition to the project.  

March 2018: Skagit Board of Commissioners erroneously determined that examination of project impacts beyond the footprint of the Marine Vapor Control System were outside their purview, effectively affirming the Hearing Examiner’s decision.

April 2018: Appellants requested a review of the decision by the Skagit Board of Commissioners by the Washington State Shorelines Hearings Board. Appellants requested that the SHB vacate the permit and require additional environmental review. The appellants allege that the review, performed by Skagit County staff, failed to adequately consider the impacts from increased vessel traffic in the Salish Sea, increased risk of petrochemical and oil spills, increased emissions of greenhouse gases, increased impacts to air and water quality and increased threats to public health and safety. It also overlooked increased impacts to fish and wildlife resources — including the endangered Southern Resident orcas.  


MEDIA CONTACT: Virginia Cleaveland, Stand.earth, virginia@stand.earth,  510-858-9902