As the small city of Hoquiam considers a key permit for a proposed terminal that would move millions of barrels of crude oil through Grays Harbor, opponents are raising concerns about the potential for oil spills and impacts on tribal fishing rights.
Westway Terminal, recently renamed Contanda, wants to expand its existing methanol facility in Washington state to receive up to 17.8 million barrels of oil a year and store up to 1 million barrels of crude oil.
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The project would bring crude oil by train from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana or diluted bitumen from Alberta where it would be stored in tanks and then loaded onto tankers or barges for shipping to refineries in the Puget Sound area or California.
The Quinault Indian Nation and environmental groups say the environmental and safety risks are too great. They're urging Hoquiam to deny the project a shoreline development permit.
Houston-based Contanda says the project would bring jobs and economic benefits to the region and the facility would be built to the strictest local, state and federal safety and environmental protocols.
"We're confident that we can safely build and operate the facility in a way that protects our employees, our neighbors, and the environment, using the environmental impact statement as a guide," Contanda spokesman Paul Queary said in a statement.
"We look forward to receiving permits from the city so we can start construction, put people to work, and provide the community with tax revenue and other economic benefits," he added.
An environmental review completed by the state and Hoquiam in September proposed dozens of measures to offset or reduce impacts, but said there would be significant impacts to tribal resources and to health and safety if a crude oil spill, fire or explosion occurs that could not be avoided even with such measures in place.
"The variety of impacts that are discussed and disclosed give the city of Hoquiam the evidence it needs to deny the permit," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the Quinault, whose reservation sits about 30 miles up the coast from the proposed site.
The tribe says moving millions of gallons of crude oil by train and tankers through the region put the tribe's safety, treaty-reserved fishing rights and way of life at risk.
An environmental review found that increased vessel docking and traffic in the navigation channel would restrict access to tribal fishing areas, and that proposed measures such as giving advance notice of vessels would reduce but not eliminate that impact.
Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay said the city has hired an independent consultant to review the project and write a draft decision. He says he typically accepts such decisions. The public comment period ended a week ago, and a decision isn't likely until January, he added.
"Whatever we do, we expect it to be appealed," Shay said.
Hoquiam previously issued a permit for the oil terminal project in 2013.
The Quinault and groups such as the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation challenged it, and a state hearings board reversed the permit. The city and Department of Ecology began an environmental review in 2014 that was released in September.
That analysis proposes tug escorts, setting up oil spill prevention and response plans and other measures to lessen environmental impacts, but says that "no mitigation measures would completely eliminate the possibility of a spill, fire, or explosion, nor would they completely eliminate the adverse consequences."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently told the city that it agrees with the Quinault Indian Nation that denying the permit "is the only defensible decision." It says the "proposal poses risks to our communities and to unique natural resources that cannot be fully mitigated, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trust resources."
At one time, three oil terminals were proposed for the Port of Grays Harbor.
U.S. Development notified the port last year that it would not renew a lease option for a proposed oil terminal. Renewable Energy Group, formerly Imperium, told state and local regulators late last year that it dropped plans to handle crude oil as it pursues an expansion project.
In the meantime, the Hoquiam City Council in 2015 approved a ban on any new crude oil storage facilities within city limits. The tribe argues that the project should be covered by that ban.
The Quinault tribe and others have also challenged the review of the project in court. Last month, the Washington Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.