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Wednesday,  June 12 , 2024

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Two accidents in one year show risks of oil industry to Washington’s tribal nations, environment

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: January 1, 2024, 6:02am
5 Photos
Scarlet Tang, communications manager for the Department of Ecology, Northwest region, looks at air quality monitoring devices tied to a fence outside the Conway Elementary school in Conway, Washington, on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.
Scarlet Tang, communications manager for the Department of Ecology, Northwest region, looks at air quality monitoring devices tied to a fence outside the Conway Elementary school in Conway, Washington, on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. (Karen Ducey/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SKAGIT COUNTY — A red-tailed hawk swooped through the tawny grasses and cattails along Fisher Slough, where yellow and white booms labeled “Olympic Pipeline” floated atop the glassy water last week.

In the distance, past the trumpeter swans wading in seasonal ponds, crews filled dump trucks with gasoline-tainted soils. Just a little over a week earlier, a connection on BP’s Olympic Pipeline system failed and released more than 25,000 gallons of gasoline, some into a farmer’s field and nearby salmon-bearing stream. Some wildlife has died, but the full environmental effects have yet to be understood.

These incidents aren’t unheard of for lands, critters and people in the shadow of fossil-fuel production infrastructure. All of Washington state’s oil refineries are near or on tribal reservations.

Several months ago, near the shore of Padilla Bay, a train derailed shortly after departing a nearby oil refinery and two engines leaked thousands of gallons of diesel.

Raw and refined fossil fuels travel through the region’s sensitive ecosystems and communities by barge, train, truck and pipeline. While state and federal laws require oversight of the fuels’ transportation, the 2023 accidents are a reminder of the risks of relying on fossil fuels.

“Where was the insurance that any incident would not impact those habitats?” asked Heather Spore, environmental policy analyst for the Swinomish tribal community. “How do we move forward with ensuring that is in place to prevent another spill? It’s not just our watershed that could be at risk, it’s not just our community.”

This month’s spill is the worst on the Olympic Pipeline in nearly 25 years, according to watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust.

‘How many cuts?’

A little brick house sits behind a wall of trees near Hill Ditch, among Skagit Valley’s patchwork of green and tan fields threaded with streams and wetlands.

“We’re pretty much ground zero,” said John Anderson, a third-generation Skagit County farmer who was raised on this land. Crews contracted by BP had set up tents and parked equipment off Highway 534 where they were tearing up Anderson’s grass hay field with excavators.

Anderson remembers watching crews lay the pipeline along his family property as a 5-year-old in the 1960s, but never thought much about its risks until this month’s spill.

“It’s regrettable, of course,” Anderson said. “There are environmental concerns. There’s contamination of the waterways there, and then the soil contamination issues.”

On Dec. 10, a connection on a 3/8 -inch stainless steel tube leading to a pressure sensor inside a big concrete vault failed. BP’s control center responded to an alarm and decided to shut down the pipeline. It takes about five minutes to shut it off, according to a BP spokesperson.

In the meantime, 25,000 gallons of refined gasoline poured out. About 5,000 gallons went into the concrete vault that houses the pressure gauges, until it began to overflow and run down a slight slope into a channelized portion of a salmon stream below. In all, about 20,000 gallons were released.

The last inspection of the valve site was Dec. 7, according to a BP spokesperson, who said “the result of the last inspection was recorded as satisfactory.”

So far, state fish and wildlife officials have found five dead birds, including a trumpeter swan, one dead salmonid and one dead beaver near the spill site, though the cause of death is still pending for some. The beaver most likely died from inhaling gasoline vapors.

Spill response crews have evaluated more than 4 miles of shoreline along either side of the stream, and traces from the spill have been found on one-third of a mile of shoreline.

“We’re looking at this, just scratching the surface right now,” said Spore, who’s served on the incident response team.

They don’t yet know the long-term effects of the gas on streamside vegetation and the bugs that young salmon need to eat, or how the toxins might move up the food chain, Spore said. Gasoline that infiltrated a mature patch of trees near the stream could cause the loss of habitat and its ability to moderate stream temperature.

Skagit River salmon — especially Chinook — are struggling to recover, in part due to poor water quality, floods, drought, lack of streamside habitats and a loss of marshy rearing habitats, Spore said. Swinomish has invested millions in salmon recovery efforts, including replanting streamside habitats and undertaking estuary restoration projects.

“How many cuts?” Spore said. “You know the adage of death by 1,000 cuts, but is this another cut that we’re facing that may have impacts that we can’t see right now?”

Swinomish staff have been providing input on the ongoing water-quality monitoring and sediment monitoring and are developing a long-term fish monitoring plan. Officials from Swinomish, Lummi Nation, Skagit County, the state Department of Ecology, Environmental Protection Agency and BP were among those who responded to the spill.

Some of the gasoline flowed into Hill Ditch, a channelized portion of Bulson Creek, part of the Skagit River watershed. The Skagit River is considered the last best hope for salmon recovery in Washington. Thousands of dollars have been invested in restoring Bulson, a stream that supports coho, cutthroat trout and steelhead.

Coho eggs are expected to hatch and the fry will begin heading downstream through the spill site in February or March, Spore said. Outmigrating Chinook will likely use habitat below the spill site in Fisher Creek and Fisher Slough.

On Wednesday, 10 days after the spill, the scene along Highway 534 faintly reeked of gas. Booms intended to suck up and halt the movement of the fuel striped the creek’s surface.

About 7,400 gallons of gasoline had been sucked from the creek, and 275 cubic yards of contaminated soils had been trucked off to a hazardous waste facility as of late Tuesday.

‘Could have been prevented’

Railroad tracks to carry oil cars weren’t on Swinomish lands 150 years ago. Streams of fossil fuels didn’t run alongside freshwater salmon highways, said Swinomish Chair Steve Edwards.

In 1889, a BNSF predecessor, the Seattle and Northern Railroad Co., constructed a railroad through the Swinomish Reservation. The tribe objected, and court documents say the railway failed to obtain permission by treaty or congressional approval before completing the tracks.

BNSF Railway used the tracks without permission for decades, and in 1970, Swinomish objected again. When the two were unable to come to an agreement, the tribe asked that the United States bring a lawsuit against the railway for trespass and removal of the rail line in 1977.

That fall, the company was denied a right-of-way application from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs because it lacked consent from the tribe. The tribe and BNSF reached an easement agreement in 1991.

The first spill in 2023 happened in March when, shortly after departing nearby refineries, two BNSF engines derailed on Swinomish land, leaking an estimated 3,100 gallons of diesel near Padilla Bay. Days later, a federal judge ruled the railway “willfully, consciously and knowingly” exceeded the limitations on its right of access when it began running trains of highly flammable crude oil over the reservation without Swinomish’s consent.

The railroad easement crosses sensitive marine ecosystems over a swing bridge at the Swinomish Channel and a trestle across Padilla Bay within the reservation. These water bodies connect other waters of the Salish Sea, where the tribe has treaty-protected rights to fish.

In a 2020 deposition, Swinomish Sen. JJ Wilbur said he fishes “for everything that the Salish Sea has to offer” in the tribe’s fishing grounds.

“I’m also concerned that someday there may be — heaven forbid — some sort of railcar accident that could happen in the Swinomish Channel,” he said. “And with that being said, that could be disastrous for not just me and my livelihood and my family, but for many families here at Swinomish.”

Not far from the railroad tracks, the Olympic Pipeline system carries gasoline, diesel and jet fuel along a 300-mile corridor spanning Blaine to Portland.

It threads together tribal communities and watersheds along the Salish Sea that house four refineries, two near Lummi Nation in Whatcom County and two bellowing white clouds above the Swinomish Reservation in Skagit County.

The fuels are delivered to Seattle’s Harbor Island, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Renton, Tacoma, Vancouver and Portland.

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On June 10, 1999, the Olympic Pipeline ruptured and poured 236,000 gallons of gasoline into a tributary of Whatcom Creek. Fumes from the gasoline ignited and sent a fireball down the creek, through a park and residential neighborhoods.

The fumes alone first killed fly fisherman Liam Wood, 18, who drowned in the creek before the explosion.

Wade King, 10, and Stephen Tsiorvas, 10, were playing north of the confluence of Hanna and Whatcom creeks when the explosion occurred. The boys survived the blast but later died from their injuries.

The inferno was estimated to have reached 2,000 degrees.

Several salmon habitat restoration projects were completed in the area as part of the mitigation for damages. Runs of salmon and oceangoing trout in Whatcom Creek and its tributaries have largely declined since the incident, though it’s hard to tease out a clear cause-and-effect relationship.

New rules passed after the deadly 1999 incident have improved pipeline safety, said Kenneth Clarkson, a spokesperson for the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group formed in the aftermath of the explosion.

However, as the most recent spill from Olympic Pipeline demonstrates, Clarkson said, the pipeline has yet to reach a point where there are zero incidents; in fact, we are a long way from that happening. “We must do more to ensure the safety of our communities and environment,” Clarkson said.

The fish did their natural thing, uninhibited, before people began building and putting their habitat at risk, Chair Edwards said, walking along Fisher Slough in Wednesday’s abundant sunlight.

“We have got to figure out what’s the best way to protect it, not contaminate it,” Edwards said. “It’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating that this had to happen twice in one year. Everything we’ve experienced this year has been human error. It could have been prevented.”