MOUNT VERNON — The Northwest Clean Air Agency will host a public hearing Wednesday regarding the Shell Puget Sound Refinery’s draft Air Operating Permit in response to a flurry of phone calls and letters that showed unprecedented community interest.

Agency officials believe the public has confused the permitting process with the refinery’s separate crude oil offloading facility proposal, which gained attention with a nationally growing concern over crude-by-rail projects.

In the two months following the agency’s public notice regarding the refinery’s draft Air Operating Permit, it received 25 requests for a public hearing, according to a news release. Many of those requests expressed concerns about issues outside the permit’s scope, and even outside the agency’s jurisdiction.

Agency officials said they have learned that groups are organizing demonstrations and advertising the public hearing to protest oil trains and refinery emissions. The anticipated crowd is expected to be larger than the 35-person capacity of the agency’s conference room, so Northwest Clean Air has moved the hearing to the Skagit County Administration Building, 700 S. Second St., Room C.

The public hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday. Each speaker will be allowed two minutes of testimony. The agency will consider written and verbal comments equally.

Northwest Clean Air hopes the hearing will help the public understand what the permit does and how their comments can help shape it. But the agency will not accept comments Wednesday about Shell’s separate rail offloading facility permits, which have not yet been approved.

“Considering recent events in the news, we understand why people are sensitive and looking for ways to improve rail and refinery safety,” Northwest Clean Air Agency Executive Director Mark Asmundson said in a prepared statement. “But we want to be straightforward about what our agency and this permit can and can’t do, and try to adjust expectations before the hearing.”

Northwest Clean Air is responsible for issuing two kinds of permits: construction permits for any new source of air pollution proposed in its Skagit, Whatcom and Island county jurisdiction and Air Operating Permits, Northwest Clean Air Agency Assistant Director Mark Buford told the Skagit Valley Herald.

The operating permits are a federal requirement for any large source of air pollution. They are “easy to comprehend” documents that wrap up all regulations, requirements and construction permits that apply to a given facility into one package that is updated every five years, Buford said.

“We have 26 of those in our jurisdiction. The four refineries (two in Anacortes, two in Whatcom County) are each major sources,” he said.

For those kinds of facilities, it’s unusual for the community to take an interest like that expressed over Shell’s permit.

“What I think has happened is that at the same time that Shell’s draft (operating permit) was put on our website so that it’s available for public comment, Shell also applied for two construction permits that relate to a crude-by-rail project,” Buford said. “There has been a very honest and very understandable confusion about the two kinds of permits and what they do.”

Longtime Sedro-Woolley resident Jim Catreen said he’s aware the offloading facility is not included in the operating permit, but he thinks a public hearing is still important.

“I think that everyone should be aware of the amount of pollution that those two refineries (in Anacortes) put out, and an air operating permit is one of the few times that you can actually see a breakdown of the actual poison that they’re putting in the air,” he said.

Northwest Clean Air said the Air Operating Permit also won’t allow the refinery to increase emissions or require it to decrease emissions. It simply pulls together operational and procedural air quality requirements including monitoring, reporting and emissions standards into one document.

“These comprehensive documents help the facilities comply with air quality requirements, and help us enforce them,” Asmundson said.

Public comment on the operating permit can help point out if the agency missed something or the community disagrees with the agency’s interpretation or application of requirements.

“All this attention is a good thing,” Asmundson said in a prepared statement. “It’s an opportunity for us to help people understand what these particular permits do, and for people to help us craft the best possible permit.”

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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