Area residents and environmental groups have raised concerns about the Tesoro Anacortes Refinery's proposed clean products upgrade project.
They worry the project will add to greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, increase vessel traffic and increase the risk of chemical spills.
The refinery's proposed project would involve upgrading existing equipment and building new equipment, in part to reduce sulfur emissions from its fuel products and to reduce emissions while transferring fuel products to vessels at its dock.
Sulfur emissions and emissions released during fuel transfers are harmful to human health when breathed.
The project would also enable the refinery to extract 15,000 barrels of xylene per day and ship it overseas.
Xylene is a chemical compound created during the oil refining process. It can be used in the manufacturing of plastics and polyester materials.
If the project is completed, up to five additional marine vessels would be used by the refinery each month.
Skagit County released March 23 a draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, detailing the potential impacts of the project and what could be done to mitigate those impacts.
The document suggests the project would have no significant environmental impacts requiring mitigation beyond existing laws and procedures.
Many who spoke at an April 17 public hearing for the draft EIS said they don't feel the draft EIS adequately addresses potential environmental impacts.
Residents and environmentalists say xylene is a dangerous chemical, and producing it and shipping it overseas will increase the refinery's greenhouse gas emissions, increase the risk of a vessel spill in the Salish Sea and further impact endangered orca whales.
Speakers at the public hearing said not enough is known about xylene to allow its production at the refinery without further review and mitigation requirements.
Anne Winkes, a retired nurse and member of the group Protect Skagit, said the potential health impacts of exposure to xylene, particularly for refinery workers, needs to be analyzed in the EIS and should require mitigation such as monitoring staff who are exposed to the material long-term.
The health impacts of exposure to xylene are varied and uncertain, according to federal agencies.
Short-term exposure can cause skin, eye, nose and throat irritation, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Exposure to high concentrations of xylene can affect the nervous system, causing headaches, dizziness and confusion, and some exposed to xylene have died, according to the agency.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there have not been enough studies to determine whether xylene causes cancer.
Little is also known about the effects of xylene spills in marine environments.
Xylene in water evaporates easily and is broken down within a few days into less harmful chemicals, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Tim Manns, a representative of the Skagit Audubon Society, said the EIS should take a closer look at the effects xylene spills may have on the marine birds, forage fish and eelgrass found at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve adjacent to the March Point refinery.
Concern about vessel spills involving xylene or the chemicals used to help extract xylene during the oil refining process was raised by several speakers at the public hearing.
"We cannot afford a spill," Robin Everett of the Sierra Club said.
According to the draft EIS, the refinery anticipates its project would bring an additional 60 vessels to its dock each year. The vessels could carry up to 330,000 barrels of xylene.
Of the various potential environmental impacts considered in the draft EIS, the document highlights marine spills as potentially having "unavoidable significant impacts."
Yet the document concludes that because procedures are in place to prevent and respond to spills, no further mitigation would be required.
Stephanie Buffum, executive director of Friends of the San Juans, said the risk of a spill in the Salish Sea should be more thoroughly reviewed in the EIS.
Protecting the Salish Sea is important for the 8 million residents in the region, and to the tourism and recreation industries that rely on clean water and healthy wildlife, she said.
The draft EIS acknowledges that a worst-case scenario xylene spill — which would be larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and last up to three days — could injure or kill marine birds, fish and microorganisms in the water.
Because the material evaporates quickly and is not passed through the food chain, lasting impacts would not be expected, according to the draft EIS.
In addition to increasing the likelihood of a spill, increased vessel traffic could impact the region's endangered orca whales.
The southern resident orcas frequent area waters from late spring through fall. It's an orca population that has declined in recent years despite federal protections for the species.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and area whale experts have said the orcas are suffering due to shrinking salmon populations, increasing vessel traffic and pollution in the water.
Noise from vessel traffic is known to interfere with communication between the whales and their hunting abilities.
Phyllis Dolph of Anacortes said the draft EIS does not adequately address the impact of increased vessel noise on the orcas and other marine wildlife.
While vessel traffic to and from the refinery as a result of the proposed project would be a small portion — an estimated 2.2 percent — of overall vessel traffic in the area, it would contribute to the cumulative impact of vessel traffic on the orcas, according to the draft EIS.
The document states "the cumulative impacts of marine vessel traffic in the Salish Sea, including the proposed project ... could further impact the Southern Resident killer whale population."
Some speakers at the hearing said the most pressing concern for them is that the project would result in more greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change.
"I am a mother and a grandmother who is deeply concerned about the future," Anacortes resident Carolyn Gastellum said. "Our planet is slowly suffocating under a blanket of greenhouse gases."
The draft EIS states that the project would reduce the refinery's emissions overall.
While an increase of greenhouse gas emissions would occur during construction of the project, from the operation of the new equipment and from increased vessel traffic, the extraction of xylene would counteract those increases, according to the draft EIS.
"The proposed project would reduce net (greenhouse gas) emissions by replacing some of the refinery’s current fuel production with xylenes production. The xylenes will not be combusted, as are fuels," according to the draft EIS.
The production of xylene could reduce the refinery's greenhouse gas emissions by 306,000 metric tons per year, according to the document.
That's the equivalent of preventing 34.4 million gallons of gasoline from being burned, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
During the hearing, Alex Ramel of Stand.Earth said he does not believe that extracting xylene during the refining process and shipping it overseas will reduce the refinery's emissions.
"This is simply an accounting trick that removes the emissions off of Tesoro's books," he said.
While in transport, xylene would be in liquid form, meaning they would have the potential to release emissions if spilled, according to the draft EIS. A worst-case scenario vessel spill could release 87,400 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
"This exceptional event could produce impacts similar to a forest fire," the document states.
According to the EPA, 87,400 metric tons of emissions is the equivalent of burning 9.8 million gallons of gasoline, or 18,462 passenger vehicles being driven for a year.