ANACORTES — A strong chemical odor from the Shell Puget Sound Refinery late Friday afternoon had an impact on some of its neighbors, and the chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community says he wants answers.
At least 13 instances of offensive odors were reported Friday to the Northwest Clean Air Agency, which said the affected areas included the Swinomish reservation and La Conner. An air quality inspector went to the scene to investigate the source of the odor, the agency said.
The Skagit County Department of Emergency Management issued an alert Friday night saying the odor was expected to dissipate with time but advised anyone who felt ill to call 911 or visit a hospital.
Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby said Saturday by telephone from Washington, D.C., that at least two tribal members were sent to an emergency room with breathing problems during the event.
He said he was contacted by several tribal members Friday who said the odor, described as smelling like burning oil or tires, had enveloped the Swinomish Reservation and surrounding areas. Residents reported nausea, headaches and burning in the throat and lungs, Cladoosby said.
“The entire tribe experienced this,” Cladoosby said. “It was pretty bad. It wasn’t a small release. … We’ve been neighbors forever with this refinery, and this is the first time that something like this has happened. … I want answers and I want assurance that it won’t happen again.”
He said the two tribal members who were hospitalized are expected to recover. One, an 81-year-old man, was released Saturday morning, Cladoosby said.
Shell Puget Sound General Manager Tom Rizzo said in a statement Friday that the odor was the result of planned maintenance work on a flare system at the facility. He said the plant suspended its maintenance activity as workers searched for the source of the odor, and that health and safety personnel tested the air in areas surrounding the plant and found no detectable levels of harmful compounds in the air.
“While we are pleased about the results of this testing and the response of our people, know that we aim to operate the refinery in a way that does not impact the community,” Rizzo said in the statement. “The calls we received tell us that today we fell short of that goal. We would like to apologize to our neighbors for the odor and also thank those who contacted us. We know that our license to operate comes from the community, and we are resolved not to impact them.”
Shell said in a statement Saturday that overnight air-quality monitoring found no harmful effects, and the company has hired an independent contractor to continuing monitoring through at least Sunday afternoon. An internal investigation has been completed, but not finalized, to determine the odor’s cause, the company said by email.
Shell said its personnel tested air quality at several locations south of Highway 20 near Padilla Heights Road, and conducted odor surveillance in Shelter Bay and La Conner.
Cladoosby said he has contacted Shell, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal investigation unit to demand an investigation into what happened. The company said the refinery general manager has been in touch with Cladoosby and plans to follow up.