Ever since BP’s massive Earth Day oil spill almost two years ago, I have been encouraging reporters to turn their attention to the operations of their Cherry Point refinery near Bellingham without success. Even after the refinery fire in the middle of February, which fortunately had little human or ecological toll, the biggest question was the impact on gas prices (as a Seattle Times report highlighted), not the bigger matter: What is it about this company that makes it so accident prone?
Despite the fact that the long-term impacts of the spill will not be known for many years, BP claimed in July that the Gulf has recovered and has declared they will no longer honor future loss claims. BP has just reached a settlement with 100,000 fishermen and cleanup workers, which the company estimates will cost it $7.8 billion. That is on top of the $6 billion already disbursed to 569,000 individuals and businesses. That still leaves BP more than $6 billion in the $20 billion fund the company officials set aside for claims to be applied toward the Justice Department's separate claims for environmental damages.
I am less concerned about how much money BP pays in damages, than I am about giving them any more of ours through sweatheart deals with the Defense Department. While BP's Gulf disaster seems to be quickly fading from public attention, Bond Huberman provided an account in Crosscut last year of anti-oil activist Antonia Juhasz’s presentation at Town Hall, marking the one-year anniversary of this disaster. I agree with the sentiment Juhasz is reported to have expressed, “The oil industries are only as bad as we let them be.”
In an effort to concisely update findings from the Gulf, I’ll let a few numbers speak for themselves:
- 11 people who died in the disaster.
- 17 people injured.
- 210 million gallons spilled, the largest recorded marine spill.
- 87 days to stop the leak.
- 2 million gallons of dispersant deployed, largest volume ever at depth.
- 1.5 years after the spill for BP to get a new permit from the Interior Department for deepwater drilling in the Gulf (Oct. 21, 2011).
- 2 billion barrels annual US oil production, an eight-year high.
While there were a number of firsts in the world of oil spills, there is overwhelming evidence that the Gulf gusher was not an isolated event in BP’s accident-riddled record. Reporter Abraham Lustgarten's new book, Run to Failure: BP and the making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, documents what BP's enormous PR budget attempts to hide.
Still it took the fire shutting down the Cherry Point refinery for what may be a month for most Washingtonians to learn the BP facility is the largest in the state and third largest on the West Coast, supplying much of the region’s jet fuel, including the DOD. It’s twice the capacity (9.5 million gallons per day) of the state’s next largest refinery, a Conoco Phillips facility just down the reach. BP is the largest operator on Alaska’s North Slope, which was opened to oil drilling in the late 1970s under the condition the oil be used exclusively for the U.S. However, it is less well known that BP led the effort to lift the export ban on North Slope crude and that its lack of maintenance on North Slope pipelines has resulted in significant increases of oil entering Washington’s waters on foreign tankers. Last week, Reuters reported yet another disruption occurred on the North Slope due to a fire in one of BP's "gathering centers."
Now, despite green claims, it is investing in the highly polluting Alberta tar sands that are connected by pipeline to its Cherry Point refinery and marine terminal. It will be interesting to know if the recent refinery fire was related to BP’s use of this viscous oil diluted with nasty solvents to pass through pipelines. The AP reported, “A failure in the crude vacuum unit led to the release of some heavier crude which ignited when it came in contact with air.”
The terminal is surrounded by the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve that was created in 1999 to recover the state’s once-largest herring spawning stock. However, the Aquatic Reserve’s management plan was only recently completed, and the recent sucess was due to state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark's ability to overcome BP’s long-standing opposition. BP is now poised to appeal their wastewater discharge permit because the Department of Ecology has included herring bioassays to determine the impact of their operations on this genetically unique stock whose listing under the Endangered Species Act they also fought.
In 2000 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitted BP to build a new tanker dock at Cherry Point without conducting an environmental impact statement (EIS) or considering the implications of the late Sen. Warren Magnuson's 1977 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) restricting refinery dock expansions. Instead, the promise to encircle all tankers with oil spill boom prior to oil transfers was cited as a primary reason an EIS was not needed. No analysis of the potential risk posed by the projected increases of tanker traffic was conducted.
Not long after receiving permits for the completed dock, BP removed the oil-spill boom mooring system. Tragically, a diver was killed during its required reinstallation. Last year the Department of Ecology fined BP for seeking excessive exemptions from the state’s pre-booming requirement despite telling the Corps all ships would be pre boomed. A lawsuit brought against the Corps by Ocean Advocates et al (a group that included me) resulted in a finding that continues to play out in debates over increased inland sea traffic. U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik issued an August 2005 order directing the Army Corps to:
(1) Prepare a full EIS considering the impact of reasonably foreseeable increases in tanker traffic as mandated by the Ninth Circuit in its March 4, 2005 opinion, and
(2) Re-evaluate whether the permit that the Corps issued to authorize construction of the northern platform at the Cherry Point Refinery will or may result in any increase in the volume of crude oil capable of being handled at the facility in violation of the Magnuson Amendment. The Corps shall revoke the permit or place conditions on the operation of the dock extension if necessary to ensure compliance with the law.
It is important to note that the 1977 “Magnuson Amendment” to the Marine Mammal Protection Act restricted the construction of refinery docks east of Port Angeles to reduce the risk of an oil spill caused by increasing the number of tankers transiting the narrow waterways through the San Juan Islands. It has often mistakingly been referred to as limiting the size of tankers calling on the Sound, including in Shelby Scates’ fine book on Magnuson and repeated in passing in Bill Ruckelshaus’ excellent letter to the editor (Seattle Times, Feb. 10) recounting how the now-soon-to-be-retired Congressman Norm Dicks has championed efforts carrying on the late Senator’s legacy of protecting Puget Sound.
Magnuson actually used his influence on federal regulations, not legislation, to restrict the size of tankers calling on Puget Sound after the Supreme Court revoked Washington State’s authority (ARCO v. Ray). Magnuson “encouraged” then Transportation Secretary Brock Adams to have the Coast Guard enact federal regulations restricting tankers calling on Puget Sound to 125,000 dead weight tons. It was his inattention to taking credit for such things (workhorse vs showhorse) that allowed for such misunderstandings. Having spent my share of time in the UW’s Magnuson Archives, I point this out to keep his remarkable record straight — with the hope that others follow in his and Dicks' footsteps.
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