Oil-by-Rail Quelled in Quinault Territory

A court ruling may quash a crude-oil-by-rail project on Quinault Indian Nation territory and protect the oceans.

The Quinault Nation is among those praising a Washington State Supreme Court ruling that the Ocean Resources Management Act (ORMA), which regulates the “management, conservation, use, or development of natural resources in Washington's coastal waters,” applies to environmental risks posed by oil shipping terminals.

“ORMA is designed to address environmental threats to our coastal waters and specifically addresses the threats posed by increased expansion of the fossil fuel industry along the Pacific Coast,” the high court stated in overturning a lower court ruling. “The language of the statute indicates that the legislature intended it to combat current environmental dangers and to preemptively protect the coastline from future environmental risks.”

The decision likely ends a proposal by bulk liquid storage company Contanda to expand its Westway Terminal to accommodate the rail delivery, storage and shipping of crude oil. Opponents say the expanded terminal would move millions of gallons of crude oil out of Grays Harbor and through Washington’s open ocean every year. (The Port of Grays Harbor has four terminals served by rail, is the nation’s leading exporter of soybean meal and the state’s largest commercial fishing port, and has an airport and hundreds of acres of industrial property.)


The Westway Terminal expansion project is opposed by the Quinault Nation, Friends of Grays Harbor, Sierra Club, Grays Harbor Audubon and Citizens for a Clean Harbor.

“The Quinault Indian Nation joins all of Grays Harbor in celebrating today’s monumental victory to keep crude oil out of our shared waters and ancestral territory,” Quinault President Fawn Sharp said in a statement. “Like so many of our neighbors across the county, we envision a healthy and pristine natural environment and a thriving, clean, and sustainable economy. After four very long years of fighting for those basic ideals, today’s decision is a significant step toward achieving our collective vision.”

Port of Grays Harbor County officials contend that delivering crude oil to the coast by rail for loading onto ships is safe.

“The oil industry is one of the most regulated industries,” the port district’s website states. “Department of Ecology, U.S. Coast Guard, state and federal laws all outline spill prevention and response requirements for companies handling crude. Washington has an exemplary record in preventing and managing spills.”

Opponents of bringing crude by rail to the port disagree, citing the numerous oil train derailments, the spills, the fires, and sometimes the deaths of the past few years in the United States and Canada. In 2013, 47 people were killed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a runaway train exploded in the middle of town; other derailments and fires occurred that year in Edmonton, Alberta; Pickens County, Alabama, and Casselton, North Dakota. In 2014 there were Plaster Rock, New Brunswick; Philadelphia; Ross, North Dakota; New Augusta, Mississippi; Lynchburg, Virginia, and LaSalle, Colorado. And 2015 brought incidents in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Timmins, Ontario; Mount Carbon, West Virginia; Galena, Illinois; Gogama, Ontario; Himdal, North Dakota; Culbertson, Montana, and Watertown, Wisconsin. Mosier, Oregon, was the oil-by-rail industry's offering in 2016.

“We know what we have here in Grays Harbor with our active commercial, recreational and [Native] fishing fleets, our beautiful beaches that draw families to explore, play, and relax, and our coastal waters that support thousands of migrating seabirds every year,” R.D. Grunbaum of Friends of Grays Harbor said in a January 12 statement on the court decision. “These natural resources and values are simply incompatible with industrial oil shipping.”

While the final decision on project permits is still pending—10 local and state permits, and 11 federal and state plan approvals are required—the project has already failed to jump some significant hurdles. An environmental impact study found that the project “would cause significant and unavoidable environmental impacts to health and safety if a crude oil spill, fire or explosion occurs,” according to the Washington state Department of Ecology website.

“There are also impacts to Tribal resources,” Ecology reported, noting the potential for violating treaties in which Native Nations reserved the right to harvest resources in their usual and accustomed areas. Treaties are the “supreme law of the land,” according to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, meaning a treaty between the U.S. and a Native nation carries as much weight as a treaty between the U.S. and a foreign country.

An economic study commissioned by the Quinault Nation found that a major oil spill could put more than 150 Native commercial fishermen out of a job, “resulting in a direct loss of as much as $20 million in wages and up to $70 million in revenue for affected businesses,” according a statement issued by Quinault and other opponents of the Westway Terminal expansion. They also cite a 2013 study by the University of Washington that states, “Marine resource jobs support more than 30 percent of Grays Harbor’s workforce.”

The environmental impact study proposes “more than 70 mitigation measures to offset or reduce environmental impacts from the project, including using newer rail cars, escort tugs in Grays Harbor, adding response equipment caches in key locations, and coordinating spill response training for local responders and Tribes,” according to the Department of Ecology.

Opponents of the Westway Terminal expansion project say that’s not enough, and feel the project is not able to meet the environmental-protection standards of the ORMA, as now required by the state Supreme Court.

“The court honored a law enacted to protect our natural ocean resources from oil shipping,” environmental lawyer Kristen Boyles said in a statement about the decision. She said the ruling “not only revives state ocean protections, but also effectively blocks proposed oil shipping terminals from being built in Grays Harbor.”

“This is a strong decision protecting and preserving coastal communities now and into the future," said Dale Beasley, president of the Coalition of Coastal Fisheries, a group that includes Washington commercial fishermen, oyster growers and charter boat operators. "Today’s decision gives commercial fishermen another handle to protect our livelihoods.”