The Anacortes Marathon oil refinery with Mt. Baker in the background. (Walter Siegmund, CC BY 2.5/contributed photo)

The Anacortes Marathon oil refinery with Mt. Baker in the background. (Walter Siegmund, CC BY 2.5/contributed photo)

Environmentalists stop Anacortes xylene proposal

Xylene will not be produced and transported through local waters thanks to a deal between the Anacortes Oil Refinery, Skagit County and regional environmental organizations.

“This is a win for the Southern Resident Killer Whales,” Friends of the San Juans Executive Director Stephanie Buffum said in a press release dated Dec. 30. “This project would have brought 120 new vessel transits each year through the Southern Residents critical habitat, increasing vessel impacts and the risk of a disastrous petrochemical spill.”

Friends of the San Juans and five other area organizations — Evergreen Islands; Friends of the Earth; Puget Soundkeeper Alliance; Stand.earth; and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities — announced that an agreement had been reached to cease Marathon Petroleum’s plan to produce and ship up to 15,000 barrels per day of mixed xylenes through the Salish Sea, and export the product to predominantly Asian markets, according to an October 2019 press release by the environmental groups. Xylene is a petrochemical used in plastics and synthetics.

“Anacortes’ plan to manufacture and export 15,000 barrels of mixed xylenes a day would have been the equivalent of adding 75,000 cars to the road,” Verner Wilson III, senior oceans campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S., said in the press release. “This agreement shows how important voices fighting against polluters are. By holding oil and gas companies accountable we can prevent further climate pollution.”

In return, the six environmental agencies agreed not to oppose Tesoro Refining and Marketing Co. LLC’s construction of a marine vapor emission control system. Tesoro Refining is a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corporation, which owns the Anacortes oil refinery.

“Allowing the marine vapor control system while preventing xylene export and manufacture is a win-win,” Tom Glade, president of Evergreen Islands, said in the press release. “The MVEC will improve air quality and working conditions on the dock, while avoiding the impacts on the climate from new and unnecessary petrochemical processing.”

According to the press release, the MVEC system will capture and destroy “fugitive vapors” which cause pollution during loading and unloading of petrochemicals. Though no longer needed for the now-defunct xylene project, the MVEC can still be used to limit the impact of existing operations at the facility.

The Anacortes refinery is 20 miles away from Friday Harbor, and Lopez is just a little over 10 as the crow flies.

History

Tesoro, which later changed its name to Andeavor, proposed the project and began filing permit applications in summer 2015. In March 2016, Skagit County required a full environmental impact statement and the draft EIS was released in March 2017.

“The overwhelming majority of comments urged the County to address concerns over worker safety standards, petrochemical spills in the Salish Sea, risks to endangered orcas, increasing crude oil train traffic, and use of the new facility for crude oil export,” the organizations wrote in the December press release. “Commenters also asked the County to separately review the xylenes export and clean products upgrade components of the project, while properly accounting for greenhouse gas pollution.”

The final EIS was released by the Skagit County Planning and Development Services in July 2017. According to the environmental organizations, that document did not adequately address many of the noted concerns.

Marathon Petroleum then purchased Andeavor in October 2018.

The expansion would have added an additional 120 vessel transits per year passing the San Juan Islands, an October 2019 press release from Crag Law Center explained. Crag Law represents the six organizations.

The coalition has been appealing to the various stakeholders to address inadequacies in the Final Environmental Impact Statement since before the Skagit County Hearing Examiner issued the first conditional permit. According to the examiner’s Notice of Decision, 55 people gave public comments during a November 2017 hearing.

One of the 55 comments during public testimony on Nov. 2, 2017, came from San Juan County Health Officer Dr. Frank James, who claimed that residents were not adequately educated about the hazards of a xylene spill. Due to xylene’s toxic and flammable nature, a spill must be handled differently than an oil spill, James explained. He noted that residents with good intentions may be injured if they assisted in cleaning up a xylene spill.

Friends of the San Juans noted in an April 2018 press release that a total of 7,500 comments were received by the examiner’s office, with many highlighting the flaws in the FEIS. The permit was issued Dec. 7, 2017.

The battle continued in 2018 when the group appealed to the Skagit Board of Commissioners, which upheld the hearings examiner’s decision in March. The commissioners determined the board could only consider the law and policies behind the Shoreline Management Act and therefore was limited to only environmental impacts that affect the shoreline area, according to the meeting minutes.

The coalition then took the appeal to the Washington Shorelines Hearings Board.

The Shorelines Hearings Board hears appeals regarding permit decisions made by local government administrators regarding the Shoreline Management Act, according to the board’s website. When this board also rejected the groups’ appeal, the environmental coalition filed an administrative law review against the board, Skagit County and Tesoro on Nov. 30, 2018.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese issued a ruling on Oct. 11, 2019, overturning a decision made by the Washington State Shorelines Hearings Board to not accept the appeal that several environmental groups made against the Marathon Petroleum Final Environmental Impact Statement.

“Today’s win is a win for our waters, and demonstrates the importance of standing up against dirty fossil fuels,” Alyssa Barton, policy manager with Puget Soundkeeper, said in the December 2019 press release. “We must remain vigilant and hold the line against proposed petrochemical projects in our region.”