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BP’s Cherry Point operations: More than a fire investigation is needed

From the start, BP has underestimated the spill and failed in its responsibilities to deal with the Gulf catastrophe. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard/via Wikimedia Commons

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.

After losing the lawsuit, BP, which had joined the case supporting the Corps, lobbied Congress to introduce bills in the House and Senate attempting to strip Magnuson’s 1977 oil spill amendments to the MMPA. Thankfully, our Congressional delegation made sure they did not pass.

As a result of the lawsuit, BP spent over $1 million contracting investigators from George Washington University who completed a state of the art vessel traffic risk assessment (VTRA) for the Greater Puget Sound in 2008. This is the only vessel traffic study subject to review by the National Academy of Sciences. Despite the value of this study to address risk-reduction efforts, the Corps and BP have refused to release it for technical reasons that should have been resolved long ago. Now BP is trying to have the GWU investigators update their analysis under the auspices of Entrix, the consulting firm at the center of a controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline environmental impact statement. The Coast Guard, which has the authority to address the findings of the VTRA, is a cooperating agency with the Corps on the EIS, making it the most appropriate agency to steward its completion.

The findings from the updated VTRA are of growing importance given the increasing exports of Alberta tar sands oil out of Vancouver. In addition, SSA Marine wants to build North America’s largest coal terminal within a mile of BP, which will attract over 500 of the world’s most-accident prone ships, twice the size of tankers Magnuson allows and without tug escorts required to ply our increasingly vulnerable waters. It is up to the Corps to assure that BP releases the study this month.

Just last year BP’s Cherry Point facility was found to have 13 serious safety violations by the state Department of Labor and Industries. On Dec. 9, a 475-ton, 12-foot by 130-foot pressurized cylinder bound for BP fell off a barge about to unload at an unpermitted landing along the Cherry Point reach. The cylinder remained in the Aquatic Reserve for 10 days before being removed.  

It is important to view these incidents as a reflection of BP’s fix-it-when-it-breaks corporate culture, which is also evident in its chronic failures nationally, documented in Lustgarten’s 400-page book but perhaps best summarized by two telling findings:

  • According to the Center for Public Integrity BP had 829 refinery violations between June 2007 and February 2010 as compared with 33 for the rest of the industry.
  • Late last year, federal prosecutors sought to revoke BP’s criminal probation that had been on and off since 2001, stating BP is a “recidivist offender and repeated violator of environmental laws and regulations.” (In December, a federal judge rejected the request and released a BP subsidiary from probation.)

While people in the Gulf are left to wonder if they will ever be appropriately compensated given the uncertainty as to whether the Gulf ever gets its life back, I question why our federal government condones such behavior by allowing them to be the largest supplier of fuel for the Department of Defense?

In her visit last year, activist Antonia Juhasz called for greater “parental supervision” of the oil industry. One of the great parental challenges is how to render appropriate punishment. It is time that the Obama administration phase out BP’s defense contracts, thereby sending a clear message that the public will no longer subsidize such reckless behavior, while at the same time diversifying the number of companies available to provide our strategic fuel supplies.

Note: For those interested in seeing how well Washington state’s Ecology Department has learned the lessons from BP’s disaster in the Gulf, I would encourage you to follow the rule making underway as a result of the state Legislature’s passage of E2SB1186 last year. It is important to note that Ecology often conflates our region’s low frequency of spills with our overall spill response ability. This rule making is our best chance to bring our response capacity up to the standards used in Alaska’s Prince William Sound for years without having to experience another oil disaster.

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