Nearly a year after a black plume rose from the Shell Puget Sound Refinery at March Point and the nearby Swinomish Indian Tribal Community alerted residents to close windows and stay indoors to avoid a smell described as like burning rubber, the refinery has been fined $60,000.
The Northwest Clean Air Agency announced the fine Monday. The tribe is glad to see the regional air agency — which enforces federal, state and local air quality regulations in Skagit, Island and Whatcom counties — take action.
“The health of the Swinomish Tribal Community continues to be my top priority, and that begins with ensuring we all have clean air to breathe,” Swinomish Chairman Steve Edwards said in a news release. “We are glad to see the Northwest Clean Air Agency take action to hold Shell Oil accountable for its repeated violations of air pollution laws that again affected the Swinomish Tribe and surrounding communities.”
Shell now has 30 days to appeal the $60,000 penalty to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board.
The Sept. 29 incident was the second such incident last year. The first occurred Aug. 19. Both, according to the Northwest Clean Air Agency, occurred when flaring at the refinery exceeded allowable emissions.
The Sept. 29 event brought numerous complaints from residents on the Swinomish tribe’s reservation and the nearby town of La Conner, and Northwest Clean Air Agency inspectors verified the presence of odors at ground level several miles downwind from the refinery.
Northwest Clean Air Agency investigators determined the event resulted from an equipment failure in what is called a cracking unit, which breaks apart hydrocarbons to make products such as gasoline. The equipment failure allowed the release of some of the hydrocarbons, combined with sulfur and other materials, into the refinery’s flaring system.
The incident was similar to one in February 2015, for which the Northwest Clean Air Agency collected a $133,000 penalty from the refinery and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a $191,000 fine for violations of the federal Clean Air Act.
During that incident, some Swinomish tribal members reported seeking medical treatment for symptoms including dizziness, coughing, headaches and breathing problems.
“With two oil refineries literally in our backyard, we are directly impacted by the refineries’ operations, and we need them to do better,” Edwards said.