Shell refinery odor linked to release of sulfur-based compound

Strong odors released by the Shell Puget Sound Refinery Friday afternoon have sparked an investigation by the Northwest Clean Air Agency and angered Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby. Brandy Shreve / Skagit Valley Herald

ANACORTES — No detectable levels of harmful compounds were found following Friday’s release of strong chemical odors from the Shell Puget Sound Refinery, a Shell representative said Monday.

Shell performed its own air monitoring and contracted independent air monitoring from the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health after the incident. Monitoring concluded Sunday afternoon, said Cory Ertel, communications and social performance manager for Shell Puget Sound Refinery.

The odor was a result of sulfur-based compounds, which occur both naturally and as a result of the refining process, Ertel said. Those compounds are then converted in the sulfur plant.

“As a result of the sulfur recovery process, a very small amount of residual sulfur-compounds can exist in the flare system,” he said and noted that the incident occurred during maintenance on the east flare.

While the compounds could be harmful in high concentrations, the measurements by Shell and the third-party contractor found no detectable levels, he said.

After being made aware of the odor, refinery personnel immediately responded to identify its source and stopped the maintenance activity, he said.

Most of the affected areas were in the vicinity of the Swinomish Tribal Community’s reservation and La Conner, but some complaints came from Anacortes, said Katie Skipper, communications program manager for the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

The agency has an ongoing investigation of the emissions after receiving about 30 complaints between 3:45 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. Friday, she said.

Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby isn’t convinced the release that caused the odor was harmless.

“Not harmful? You tell that to my people who were mushroom-clouded with chemicals that made them sick,” he said. “If that’s not harmful, I’d hate to see what harmful is.”

Two Swinomish Tribal Community members went to the emergency room with breathing problems, including an 81-year-old elder and a toddler, Cladoosby said. The baby is much better, but the elder still has a persistent cough, he said.

Cladoosby said the emissions even made a tribal member’s dog ill and said he didn’t think conclusions could be drawn without further investigation.

Cladoosby said he’s been in contact with Northwest Clean Air, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Ecology.

“This is a very serious matter, and I want a thorough report,” Cladoosby said. “I want answers, and I don’t want this to happen ever again.”

Northwest Clean Air is working with both the refinery and the Swinomish on this issue and is invested in the health and well being of everyone involved, Skipper said.

“There’s a difference between smell and hazardous pollutants. There can be a terrible odor and no pollutants that pose a health risk, or there can be no smell while there’s something lethal in the air,” Skipper said. “We just don’t know right now, and it will likely be some time before we know all the details.”

Ecology may follow up once more details emerge to make sure that whatever caused the odor releases did not effect local water quality and nearby wastewater treatment systems, said Ecology Communications Manager Larry Altose.

Shell apologizes to the community for the odor and is mindful of the fact that the odor was strong and unsettling, Ertel said in the statement.

The refinery has established a hotline for community inquiries and encourages people who have any questions, comments or complaints related to Friday’s odor issue to call 360-293-1797. If a community member wants to file a claim for this particular odor issue, they can call 855-276-0771.

Ertel said the refinery is resolved to make sure similar incidents don’t happen in the future.

— Reporter Shannen Kuest, 360-416-2145,, Twitter: @Shannen_SVH,

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