State puts brakes on plans for Grays Harbor oil terminals

SEATTLE — State officials said Wednesday they are revoking permits for two planned oil train terminals in southwest Washington after deciding the projects should face more environmental scrutiny.

The state Shorelines Hearings Board issued a letter Wednesday indicating it will invalidate permits for Westway Terminal Co. and Imperium Terminal Services, which want to build oil shipping terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor that could store up to 1.5 million barrels of crude, primarily from North Dakota.

The city of Hoquiam issued the permits last spring, after determining in conjunction with the state Ecology Department that the proposals posed minimal threat to the environment. The letter called that determination “clearly erroneous,” noting that the city and state officials failed to consider the cumulative environmental impacts of having the two terminals running along with a third terminal planned nearby.

The board also noted the effects of increased train and vessel traffic need to be considered, as does the damage that could be posed by an oil spill or an earthquake.

The projects are among several “crude by rail” terminals being planned or built in Washington to handle a boom in oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken formation. The oil would arrive by train and be shipped out by barge or tanker to refineries on Puget Sound and the California coast.

Rail proponents have argued that shipping oil by train is exceptionally safe, though in Quebec in July an unattended train rolled away and derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic near the Maine border, triggering explosions, the destruction of the town’s center and the deaths of 47 people.

Opponents note that while the construction and operation of oil pipelines is subject to strict state, federal and local environmental and safety reviews, there are no such overarching reviews of crude-by-rail proposals, though the effects of derailments and oil spills can be devastating.

The Quinalt Indian Nation, the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation and other groups appealed the Westway and Imperium permits to the board, which indicated last month that it had concerns. Wednesday’s letter did not represent an official decision, but was sent to advise the parties of what the decision will be, wrote Kay Brown, an administrative appeals judge for the board.

The groups opposed to the terminals, represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, welcomed the news.

“We will not let Grays Harbor become an Alberta tar sands and North Dakota oil depot,” Quinalt Nation President Fawn Sharp said in a news release. “Our history and fishing livelihood demand we protect these waters.”

Heidi Happonen, a spokeswoman for Westway, said the company was reviewing the letter and its implications as it awaits the official decision from the board. She said it wasn’t clear how the decision might affect the timeline of the project. Westway, which already ships methanol from the port, had expected to have the terminal operational by early 2015.

“They’re very interested in pursuing this and continuing to do business there,” Happonen said.

Ecology spokeswoman Linda Kent said the department also was reviewing the letter. An appeal of the official decision, when it is issued, could be filed in state court.

Kayla Dunlap, spokeswoman for the Port of Grays Harbor, said the letter would at least give the projects’ proponents something to start thinking about as they await the official decision. Combined, the three projects planned at the port have been expected to create 100 well-paying jobs, plus additional jobs for longshore and rail workers.

“A hundred jobs to our community is huge,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the state unemployment statistics, but Grays Harbor County is always No. 1.”

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