The microphone worked only part of the time, and occasionally the gymnasium walls bounced the words like a volley of loose basketballs. Despite that, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got an earful last week at Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham in a meeting that echoed decades of Northwest environmental history and new fears about exports of coal and oil to Asia.
One by one, three minutes at a time, unhappy citizens dismantled the Corps’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement concerning the operation of the Northwest’s largest oil terminal.
The document examines the impact of the North Wing of the BP oil terminal at Cherry Point, the scenic seacoast on the Strait of Georgia between Ferndale and Blaine. Unlike most environmental reviews, the one that brought about the Wednesday discussion concerns a facility that's already in operation, in this case for more than a decade.
The North Wing is BP’s second dock for oil tankers; it’s used to ship out refined products, including two-thirds of the jet fuel used at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The second dock allows BP to use the first dock (or South Wing) solely for bringing crude oil ashore from tankers. Whether or not that increases the terminal’s capacity is, suddenly, a hotly debated question.
The North Wing was added in 2001 and is only now getting its first environmental eyeballing by the Corps.
Although the Corps has raised the possibility of ordering the destruction of the dock, the leading critic of BP operations there dismisses that idea. The review, however, could lead to stronger controls on operations.
As an ARCO port in its earlier iteration (BP bought ARCO in 2000), the Cherry Point terminal started taking oil from tankers crossing Puget Sound 43 years ago. It escaped formal impact study back then, because its construction began just ahead of the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.
The current study of the North Wing is a legacy of the late U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson. In 1977, Magnuson amended his Marine Mammal Protection Act to limit the capacity of the terminal to import crude oil through the Sound.
The amendment, its language allowing no excuse for misconstruction, prohibits any federal permit which “will or may” lead to an increase in “the volume of crude oil capable of being handled” at any dock in navigable Washington waters east of Port Angeles, beyond the facility's capacity on Oct. 18, 1977.
The amendment exempts oil meant to be refined for consumption in the state of Washington. (Filings by the oil company indicate that about one-quarter of the products refined at BP Cherry Point meet that exemption).
At the time, Magnuson, a six-term Democrat who worried about oil spills in Puget Sound, was heading off proposals for a Cherry Point super-port, designed to handle unheard-of quantities of Alaskan crude from the state's booming North Slope. Remarkably, in the light of today’s Capitol Hill paralysis, his amendment sped through both houses of Congress in the course of a day. Republicans from the Washington delegation ran interference within their own caucus to help Magnuson.
In 1996, the Corps approved a permit for the ARCO North Wing addition, without benefit of an environmental impact statement. At the time, Corps officials agreed with ARCO that oil tankers are safer when they’re berthed and unloading than when they’re anchored elsewhere and waiting a turn at the dock. Making the process more efficient also makes it safer, the officials decided. Therefore, no environmental impact and no need for an EIS.
Except — there was that pesky Magnuson Amendment. Environmental critics of the ARCO port reasoned that the use of the North Wing to send off refined products freed up the South Wing to take in more crude oil. Thereby increasing the volume of crude oil capable of being handled. Thereby violating the Magnuson Amendment.
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